Noam Toledano, a Bedford High School sophomore, recently returned to Bedford from the national USA Gymnastics competition in Oklahoma City, where he emerged as eighth-ranked on the pommel horse and 27th among all male gymnasts in his age group.Six days a week, 16-year-old Noam Toledano spends three to four hours at Brestyan’s American Gymnastics Club in Burlington.
And he loves it.
Noam, a Bedford High School sophomore, recently returned to Bedford from the national USA Gymnastics competition in Oklahoma City, where he emerged as eighth-ranked on the pommel horse and 27th among all male gymnasts in his age group.
USA Gymnastics sponsors competitions between December and May, at the local, state, regional, and national levels. Noam was ranked fourth out of the eight qualifiers from the region, which comprises all of New England except Connecticut.
After the Nationals, it was right back to the gym. “There’s no time off,” he explained. “During competition season, December through May, you’re working on endurance and polish, making it look nice.” Then beginning in the summer, “you’re working on flexibility and strength, learning new skills, trying to get better.”
This all began at age three, when his mother Dganit took Noam to a movement class for toddlers, and the instructor said he should explore the world of gymnastics. She still remembers picking him up from kindergarten at Davis School. Those days are almost gone – now he has a learner’s permit.
By the time he was six, Noam was competing as part of a team.
“I’ve been doing this for so many years it’s like a normal routine,” Noam said, adding, “It’s a lot of commitment. There’s a lot of self-discipline and a lot of motivation. Sometimes I come home at 8:30 or 9 and there’s homework and exams.”
“But I love the sport,” he continued. “It’s hard to describe. I really like the energy in the gym, the feelings of accomplishment and success, and learning new skills,” whether in Oklahoma City or the gym in Burlington. His mother said, “It’s a really hard sport, mentally and physically.”
There are six standard events in any competition, and the gymnast seeks proficiency in all of them: floor routine, pommel horse, rings, vaults, parallel bars, and horizontal bar.
“You build the routine around how you want to do,” Noam explained. Each lasts no more than one minute. “You take a few seconds before you go onto the equipment and visualize what you want to do. It can get dangerous and you need to avoid distractions,” Noam explained. “Through experience I found ways to help me deal with pressure.
“Each event requires a lot of different skills. Strength, balance, flexibility – and a big part is coaching,” Noam said. During a practice session, he focuses on two or three of the six, but strength and flexibility are priorities every day.
“There are a lot of ups and downs. At some point it’s more mental than physical,” he continued. “Sometimes when you try something for the first time, it’s very scary. But then it gives you such satisfaction. And when things don’t go well it’s very hard. It is very mentally challenging – you have to stay motivated and focused.”
He stressed that in training and competing, “It’s a team experience. We keep pushing each other. It would be a lot harder without them.”
Then there are personal concerns, like a diet that replenishes the calories, and sufficient sleep, even when MCAS beckons. And he mentioned the central role of his coach, physically and mentally. Debbie Naka, a former intercollegiate gymnast, has been with Brestyan for 11 years. “She’s a big reason why I keep doing the sport,” Noam said.
Noam related that he has only suffered one serious injury, and that was soon after the arrival of Covid-19. “I fell off a high bar and broke my tibia. I was four months with a cast; I couldn’t do anything,” he said, adding, “I was always thinking about getting back into the gym.
“My friends know the hours I put in and they’re all very supportive. But they’re not that familiar with the sport,” Noam said. They can also see his routines and competitions on Instagram.
Noam also builds friendships with other gymnasts in the region, and there’s mutual support, even when there’s simultaneous competition. “It’s a very positive community,” he said.
The commitment extends to the family, beyond the rides to and from the gym. Vacations need to be close to a practice facility. “Time management was one of the first skills he learned. And we always tell him: schoolwork comes first,” his mother said. Noam won a regional All-American designation from USA Gymnastics that includes an academic component.
There’s almost a psychological extension in his parents’ mindset. “When you start really young, you learn to tune out” distractions, said Dganit. “There’s pressure on yourself,” his father Assaf said. “You have one shot in a competition.” He added, “This sport doesn’t get as much recognition.”
“I’ve been thinking about the future a lot,” Noam said. Stanford University in California is the top intercollegiate destination for the sport, he said.
In New England, the leading option is Springfield College. He attends a grueling three-day gymnastics camp at Springfield in the summer. “They’re very intense practices,” he said. “But we do get time to socialize at night.”