All Mike Hunger saw was a strip mall, a bunch of farms, and a single McDonald’s. That is what Champlin looked like to the then 26-year-old Brooklyn Center native as he drove through town looking to start a gym club in the mid-1980s.

With no space to lease, Hunger, like the former gymnast that he was, had to be creative. He and two other business partners eventually decided to start from the ground up and build their facility off of Highway 169 on 123rd Avenue. So beginning in 1987, Twin City Twisters (TCT) was founded. Nearly 35 years later, the gym is home to over 1,000 students, including a current U.S. Olympian.

Many gymnasts from around the country and world know TCT as a premier spot to train and perfect their craft, but to Hunger, it is still an overnight success.

As a 13-year-old, Hunger loved playing sports, but being the shortest kid in his class, he had trouble finding one he could do that fit his size. Then in seventh grade, he stumbled upon an after-school activities list that had gymnastics as an option. Having no idea what that was, Hunger tried it and after the first day, it was love at first sight.

After competing during his high school years, Hunger was talented enough to make the team at the University of Minnesota but stepped away from the sport after two years due to a back injury. However, before the injury, Hunger had laid the groundwork for his next life in the sport: coaching. As soon as he started gymnastics in middle school, he began working at a gym five miles from his house, where he traded time working on his events in the gym with teaching classes.

So when the time came for his competing career to end, coaching was a natural transition to stay involved in the sport. Like a potter molding a piece of clay, Hunger loves working with young kids when they are developing as a gymnast and helping them achieve their goals. “I love teaching kids that they can achieve whatever they want to work on,” Hunger said. “I tell them, ‘don’t let anyone tell you what you can do. You set your mind to it and you work hard and make it happen.’”

Gaining recognition

One of the first gymnasts that put Hunger and his coaches at TCT on the map was Maggie Nichols. The Little Canada native remembers her first day at the gym vividly: She showed up five minutes late because she and her parents couldn’t find the building, and when Nichols arrived, all the other girls were running outside. But Nichols didn’t bring any tennis shoes, so she had to toughen up and run barefoot around the pond with the other girls.

Inside the gym, Nichols was shocked at the talent and skill level of the other girls. “When we started practicing, I remember watching the girls and being in awe because of their talent,” Nichols said. “I wanted to be just like them.”

Through hours upon hours of training, she began to rival the other girls she used to be starstruck over. But more importantly, as she grew in athletic prowess and skill level, her character as a person grew just as much. “Twin City Twisters has built me into not only the gymnast I am today, but the person I am as well,” Nichols said.

Very quickly, Nichols had turned into one of the best gymnasts the Champlin business has ever produced. She was on the United States World Championship team in 2015 and was a top candidate to make the 2016 Olympic team in Rio de Janeiro until she tore cartilage in her knee three months before the U.S. Trials. While she battled through the injury at trials, she was not selected to be on the team, even as an alternate. “That was devastating,” Hunger said, who was on the floor with Nichols and fellow coach Sarah Jantzi as the U.S. team was chosen.

As stunning as the choice to leave Nichols off the team was for Hunger, it ended up changing the course of his short-term future at his gym. Before the trials in 2016, Hunger was ready to leave the sport. His two children, also gymnasts, were finished with their competing careers and he had his eyes set on semi-retiring. But after the shocking result of Nichols being left off the Olympic team, Hunger changed his mind. “I told Sarah [Jantzi], ‘I’ll stick around for one more cycle to help you out,’” he said.

About the time Nichols was competing for a spot on the Olympic team, a new face arrived at TCT. After training at a gym in Forest Lake for many years, this 13-year-old girl came in with a raw and sloppy form but was determined to get better and better. Her name? Grace McCallum.

OLYMPIAN GRACE MCCALLUM

“Grace was pretty raw and really talented, but a sloppy gymnast,” Hunger said. “She could do a lot of skills but none of them looked pretty.”

“She wasn’t scared,” Jantzi, her personal coach, said. “She had good air sense and body awareness, but she had bad form.”

When McCallum first started at TCT, she was shocked. After being the best gymnast at her old gym in Forest Lake, the Isanti native said she went to “the absolute worst on the team.”

“At first, the transition was hard because the caliber of gymnastics was so high here compared to other gyms in Minnesota,” McCallum said. “But I think it is exactly what I needed because it pushed me to become a better gymnast. It helped me reach my full potential.” Like Nichols did when she turned 13 years old, McCallum soon grew close with Jantzi, not only as her personal coach but a trusted confidante. “I always feel supported by her no matter what, even in the bad days,” McCallum said. “She is always there for me and if I’m struggling she’ll be like, ‘Hey what do we need to do today so you can walk out feeling like you accomplished something and feel good about it and feel successful?’”

Hours upon hours, McCallum trained and worked to perfect her craft in the Champlin gym. While most gyms have the mindset of working at least 30 hours a week, Hunger and the TCT staff have a different philosophy.

“We try to cram into 20 hours a week what other clubs might train in 30 hours,” Hunger said. “We try to do it fast and give the gymnasts a life outside the gym. But it is incredibly hard. Our whole staff has had to buy into that.”

Efficiency is the name of the game and athletes like McCallum have bought into that culture at TCT. “If you’re moving faster through those 20 hours and if you can do it when you’re tired, it’s going to be that much easier when you go to a competition,” Hunger added. “When you’re here, you work hard. But when you’re done, go. That’s been our philosophy since day one.”

Coaches, like athletes, have embraced Hunger’s efficient mindset. During the past 16 years, Jantzi has been with Hunger every step of the way inside the four walls of TCT. A gymnast herself growing up, Jantzi competed at Central Michigan University, where got a degree in education. After college, she served as a lower-level coach for one year at an action sports camp in Cable, Wisconsin, but realized she didn’t want to live out in the “middle of nowhere” permanently. As she searched for coaching opportunities, the Duluth native reached out to Hunger, who she knew previously through her aunt, a gymnastics coach, and friend of Hunger’s. Jantzi asked if there was a spot for her at his gym, to which Hunger replied, ‘let me see what I can do.’

In 2005, Jantzi officially started working at Twin City Twisters. While not a full-time employee, Jantzi wore many hats in her first several years. She was in charge of cleaning the building, vacuuming, and moving the mats, but her favorite role was being the coach of the lower-level gymnasts.

Then when Nichols, 13 years old at the time, arrived on the scene nearly 10 years ago, Jantzi took an increased role at the gym, ascending to the Elite program, which consists of Olympic-caliber athletes. “It takes a lot of extra time,” Jantzi said. “But for me, I just loved gymnastics so I was like, ‘More time in the gym? Ok, sure I’ll do it.’”

‘Five years of redemption’

Fast forward to the 2021 U.S. Team Trials in June down in St. Louis. After being postponed a year earlier due to the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes and coaches alike were anxious to see if an extra year of training and waiting helped or hurt the competitors. Had the trials taken place in 2020, Hunger said he thought McCallum, who looked as good as ever last year, would have been a lock on the team. But six months before the 2021 trials, McCallum broke her hand, which impacted her performance during the World Championships two weeks before the U.S. Trials.

But she pushed through any discomfort or pain and put on a show in the Gateway City. At the Olympic Trials, McCallum recorded an all-around score of 114.63, which earned her fourth place, two points ahead of fifth-place MyKayla Skinner. But as Hunger and Jantzi knew first-hand, the selection committee had the ultimate sovereignty in deciding who would be on the team.

“I knew that I did everything I could and it was in [the committee’s] hands,” McCallum said. “I had a good feeling going into the meet but also you never know. Any of us could have gotten that last spot. But I did feel a little stressed and sick to my stomach knowing that in the next couple of minutes I’ll know if my dreams came true or if my dreams are shattered.”

Her coach felt similar angst. “It was a rough time watching the trials,” Hunger said. “We were cautiously optimistic.” After the competition concluded, the most agonizing half-hour for every coach, athlete, and parent began. All Hunger and Jantzi could think about was what happened five years ago, being in the same situation with Nichols. “We don’t take anything for granted after seeing how close Maggie got and didn’t make it,” Hunger said. “It was a pretty excruciating 30 minutes.”

But amid doubt and worry, Jantzi had an innate sense that things were going to be different this time around. “I felt Grace was going to make it.”

And then the announcement came: McCallum made the team.

“I won’t soon forget that feeling,” Hunger said, who was sitting in the stands when the team was announced. “It felt like five years of redemption.”

For Jantzi, McCallum’s accomplishment wasn’t merely reflective of her individual success. It was for Nichols. “It was always my goal to get an Olympian,” she said. “It’s like I did it for two athletes. This is for Maggie too.”

Representing Minnesota

When the Olympic Games in Tokyo begin July 23, Hunger will be watching from the comfort of his home in Utah with his wife, two kids, and two grandkids, although he said it will be up to his wife whether or not they watch the events live in the early morning or on tape delay.

Jantzi, however, will be traveling with the U.S. team as an assistant coach. “There is a lot of pride and honor that we were selected to represent our country,” Jantzi said. “I’m just going to do my job to make sure all the kids on the team get what they need.”

Jantzi will be a part of a large Minnesota contingency representing the United States in gymnastics. Along with McCallum, 18-year-old Suni Lee from Saint Paul will compete for the women’s team, and 22-year-old Shane Wiskus from Spring Park will compete for the men’s team.

Hunger credits the overall friendliness of the state for part of the success in producing some of the world’s best gymnasts. “Minnesota is a very welcoming and friendly gymnastics community,” Hunger said. “Suni [Lee] has been to our gym to train. Sarah has taken Grace to her gym to train. That wouldn’t happen in other parts of the country.”

It may not be the flashiest building on the map, but Champlin’s gymnastics headquarters has gained the respect it rightfully deserves from gymnasts and beyond. “I think TCT has always had a huge impact on the gymnastics community,” Nichols said. “Not only from the gymnasts they have produced but I think people see that TCT has a family and that they grow kids into amazing people and athletes. I’m so excited that a gymnast from TCT is going to the Olympics. I think it allows people to see how amazing the gym and the coaches are.”

McCallum understands the importance of competing not only for herself but for the region she is from.

“I feel really honored to represent my state,” McCallum said. “I think it’s amazing that we have three Minnesotans that are going to the Olympics in one sport. It says a lot about our gyms here, that we’re up and coming.”

With her dreams of Olympic competition nearly fulfilled, McCallum is ready to step into the spotlight. Hunger and Jantzi said she is feeling the best physically she has in her career and even though her performance at the U.S. Trials was good enough to make the team, they know she hasn’t quite scratched the surface.

“Grace has another level to go,” Jantzi said.

“I’m just going to go out there and have a lot of fun,” McCallum said. “I always compete better when I’m having fun, I’m calm and I enjoy every moment.”

Whether on the world’s biggest stage in Tokyo or local competitions, the legacy of Twin City Twisters spans much farther than padded floors and warehouse walls in Champlin. “We help kids achieve their goals and develop life skills. The gymnastics success is just a byproduct of that,” Hunger said. “Are we proud of Grace? Absolutely. Are we any less proud of the kid that never made it? Not at all. We’re proud of them all. We try to take the approach that every kid that walks through our doors deserves to get the best experience we can provide for that kid.”

From searching for land in rural Champlin 33 years ago to now being one of the premier gymnastics gyms in the country, Twin City Twisters has exceeded even the highest expectations. “I feel so blessed,” Hunger said. “I don’t know how I stumbled into this life. I’m incredibly grateful for everything I’ve had. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Editor’s Note: As of press time, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games were scheduled to take place July 23-Aug. 8. It was uncertain at the time whether or not the Games would be played due to a rise in COVID-19 cases among athletes and coaches.

Copyright © 2021 at Sun Newspapers/ APG Media of East Central Minnesota. Digital dissemination of this content without prior written consent is a violation of federal law and may be subject to legal action.

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