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Work begins to restore gymnastics school
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Photo courtesy of JENNIFER VONHOF
From left, Torin Fitsgibbon, gymnasts Sammy Travers, Connor Vonhof, Bobby Travers, Garrison Vaughan, Alice Vaughan, and Coach Sydney Crabb are covered in soot after helping clean Apollo School of Gymnastics on July 1 after the fire.
Photo courtesy of JENNIFER VONHOF
Firefighters say the fire was lit in this doorway so both rooms would be damaged – this larger room and the smaller room next to it.
CLEARWATER – A fire on June 28 that Clearwater Fire and Rescue says was caused by arson has displaced a family of more than 500 people. It may not be its traditional definition, but those who attend and coach at Apollo School of Gymnastics at 2140 Range Rd. in Clearwater agree that they’re all family.

The Vonhof family of Clearwater has practically lived at the school for the past 10 years. Jenny Vonhof is treasurer of the Apollo Booster Club, her oldest son, Cameron, 16, began gymnastics at the school when he was only 7 and now is a coach at the school. His younger brother, Connor, 13, also started gymnastics at age 7 and just finished competing on the school’s Level 8 team. He moves on to Level 9 next season. And even though daughter Lauren, 11, has moved on to dance, she, too, participated in gymnastics at the school from starting at age 2 in the mommy and me class, then in various classes and teams through age 9. Her mom attributes her solid core muscles, straight legs and pointed toes to the skills she learned at Apollo.

Like many of the Apollo families, the Vonhofs live and breathe gymnastics. Connor works out five or six days at Apollo, and they usually spend between 20 and 23 hours a week at the gym, Jenny said. All the families know each other and sit together at meets all over the country.

“It’s what I do,” Cameron said, who has been in gymnastics for more than half his life. He is now going into his junior year at Countryside High.

Jenny had taken her boys to open gym the night of the fire. They left at 9 p.m. and Jenny said other parents were talking in the parking lot until 9:15 p.m. A Clearwater police officer on patrol in the area smelled smoke and discovered the fire shortly after 10 p.m., and about 50 firefighters from 15 units responded at 10:12 p.m., according to a police report. It took about 30 minutes to control the fire, the report said, and police and firefighters suspect the cause was arson.

Jenny said since the fire was lit in the doorway between the big and the small gym inside, it is suspected that the arsonist was trying to destroy the whole building. She said it is fortunate that it was found so quickly but that it is eerie that it happened so quickly after kids and parents, like herself, left.

“It just makes you go, was somebody standing there that we didn’t even notice?” Jenny wondered. “Was someone lurking in the shadows waiting for all of us to leave?”

The Vonhofs found out about the fire the next morning. Cameron said that when his dad told him the news, at first he thought he was joking. He couldn’t believe his second home had been destroyed.

“It shocked me that it was arson,” Jenny added. “When you hear ‘fire,’ you think, ‘Oh my gosh, electrical,’ or something like that. I can’t imagine anyone having a problem with them. It has to be just a sick person to affect so many kids. I mean, this is my kids’ home away from home. They grew up in that gym. And just the fact that somebody would do that is just – it makes me sad. It makes me mad. I’m outraged.”

The cost estimate of the damage is over $50,000. All the padding and foam is destroyed, she said, and of course a gymnastics facility is covered in foam. Each block of foam in the foam pit alone costs as much as a cheeseburger, Cameron said. The coaches use that analogy so kids don’t pick apart the foam, he said.

“They don’t know what’s salvageable and what is not,” Jenny said. “I think they are going to try to recover what they can and replace what they can’t. The (special) floor, like the carpeting is all going to have to get redone. The office. It’s amazing the smoke damage to things that weren’t even near the fire. The front desk needs to be replaced. I’m sure the computer equipment in the office. There’s water everywhere.”

After the fire, the whole school pulled together. The Vonhofs, other team members and their families, and other coaches helped one of the owners, Brian Finnegan, start the cleanup process. They all wore masks to protect their lungs, and it wasn’t long before soot coated their skin, clothes and hair. The other owner of the school, Jessica Carillon, was out of the country for the week, and one of the boys’ team coach, Grant Britton, was on vacation in Boston because the school was already set to be closed during the holiday week. Therefore, the kids and family members worked extra hard to help Finnegan so he wasn’t working solo until the others came back and they could delegate more.

“We’re just all trying to help (Finnegan) out,” Jenny said. “We’ve been moving equipment out of the gym. There was insurance to cover the building, but not the contents. So we’ll restore the equipment that we can and purchase new equipment like foam.”

The actual damage to the building isn’t the major part, she said.

“The damage isn’t bad,” Jenny said. “There’s a hole in the roof that the firefighters had to put in. A lot of the doors are going to need to be replaced. It’s the equipment. It’s the carpet. It’s just everything else. And gymnastics equipment is expensive.”

The boys store their personal grips in the small room at the gym, and all of those were destroyed, Jenny said, so the boys were all in the process of ordering new ones. The beams and bars will have to all be re-wrapped, she said. The mushroom domes where the younger boys learn how to practice for the pommel horse were ruined as well, Jenny said. But fortunately, Cameron said, anything metal was fine.

“We’re just not going to let it bring us down,” Cameron said. “Staying positive.”

Fortunately, team season starts in December, so the timing could be worse.

“Over the summer, it’s really getting new skills to add to the teams in the meet season,” Cameron said. “Perfecting them so you can get the best score.”

Gymnastics is highly competitive, and the teams attend meets all over the country with gymnasts from all over the nation and even from other countries. The current owners, Finnegan and Carillon, were coaches when the Vonhofs started at Apollo. In 2008, they bought the school from Karl Bishop, who had owned it since 1990. The school was started by eight families from the Clearwater YMCA in 1975 and is the oldest, continually operating, private gymnastics school in Florida. In that time, it has served more than 30,000 children, according to a press release from the school. Since the current owners took over, they have built up the after-school program, the summer camp program and purchased additional space to expand it, Jenny said.

For the gymnasts, Apollo is much more than just a gym.

“It shapes them,” Jenny said. “It puts them in with a good group of kids.”

“It’s more than just a sport,” Cameron added.

As a mom who was born and raised in Florida, she appreciates that gymnastics is an indoor sport that allows her kids avoid getting sun damage, that is in a safe environment and keeps her kids in the top physical state.

“Something (former owner) Karl (Bishop) used to say at meets was, ‘The worst gymnast at that meet is still the best athlete in their whole school,’” Cameron said.

Jenny agreed.

“My kids, when they would go into P.E. and they had to do the sit-up, pull-up, push-up tests, they don’t just beat their class,” Jenny said. “They beat their whole grade.”

The kids on the gymnastics teams have rigorous fitness regimes that keep them in top shape, though Cameron said that gymnastics can be for everyone, even those who don’t want to compete at that level. For him, he has benefitted from gymnastics beyond just a physical level.

“It also helps you from a social standpoint as well,” Cameron said. “It makes it so you’re not scared to do things in front of people. At meets, you’re performing in front of a lot of people.”

Although there is a team aspect, the kids are still performing alone, Jenny said. Everyone gets individual scores, and then the top three scores from each team are used to make up the team score.

Despite the heartbreak of losing their gymnastics school, everyone is trying to stay positive.

“I told Brian (Finnegan) that I think in the end, everything will be fine, and he’s going to have a gym that’s going to look brand new when it’s done,” Jenny said. “I do have to say, it’s been very heartening the way everyone pulled together to help. Everyone wants to do something. All the members of the gym are getting dirty and sooty and sweaty.”

The teams are practicing at Bayside Gymnastics in St. Petersburg for at least a week until they could find a temporary facility in which to practice, Jenny said. They are looking for a more permanent place to rent until Apollo is back up in running, however. The facility needs to be at least 5,000 square feet with ceilings between 18 and 22 feet tall, Jenny said. Cameron said Lightning City Gymnastics in Tampa will loan them all the needed equipment for the temporary location, once they find a spot to set up.

The nonprofit Apollo Booster Club already was already planning fundraisers over the summer, but instead of using the money to support the teams as usual, the group has decided to use the money to help the owners recover from the fire. The club will post the details of the events on its Facebook page. Search for Apollo Booster Club.

There is also a Go Fund Me page at that already raised nearly $5,000 in the first six days it was up. The goal is to raise $50,000 to benefit the school. The website company receives 4.25 percent of donations on the page, so if people want 100 percent of their donation to go to the school, they can sent their tax-deductible gift to Apollo Booster Club, P.O. Box 2893, Dunedin, 34697.

Anyone with information about the suspected arson should call 877-662-7766 or 562-4242. There may be a cash reward of up to $5,000 for information and if one calls the first phone number.
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