Although he only stands at only 4 feet 8 inches tall, Ari McEwing is a beacon of strength, with well-defined abs, broad shoulders and muscular arms. Unlike many 12-year-olds, he doesn't use his power to hit home runs or make tackles on the football field; he'd rather be spinning around a pommel horse or hanging from the rings.
For McEwing, gymnastics has worked out. The Maple Glen native has competed in meets in California, New York, Ohio, Nevada and Colorado. At the 2006 National Future Star Championships at U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs just last month, he finished sixth in the country in the 11-year-old division — meaning he is one of the best in the country in his age group.
When he started competing five years ago, the thought of doing some of the sport's more elaborate moves seemed impossible.
"I feel like I've gotten very far," said McEwing. "I thought I'd never be able to do this. I feel very accomplished."
'Potential and Promise'
McEwing's schedule is vigorous, with 25 hours of training spread over six days during the week. Each school day, the sixth-grader is pulled out of Sandy Run Middle School roughly an hour early, missing a study-hall period to get into the gym for a private one-hour lesson at 3 p.m.
On all but one weekday, he does his homework for the next hour, then practices with his local team — American Gymnastics — from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m.
"He shows a lot of potential and promise to be a top-notch gymnast one day," said McEwing's coach, Steven Smith. "He works hard. He's probably the best kid I've ever coached who has the most potential."
Although McEwing inevitably misses time in school, he excels at it, earning mostly A's and a couple of B's.
The athlete, whose father is Irish and whose mother is Jewish, spends time on Sundays — his one day off from gymnastics — studying for his Bar Mitzvah with a private tutor.
He attended Hebrew school when he was younger, but stopped when it conflicted with practice. These days, he's being refreshed on the Hebrew alphabet and the meaning of holidays.
"I'm starting to relearn the importance of Chanukah and Yom Kippur," he said.
Since he finished in the top nine in the Future Stars competition, McEwing has been invited back to the Olympic facility for a private camp this summer. Of course, his progression begs the question: Can he one day compete in the Olympics?
"I tell them to take steps up the ladder," said Smith, 26, who sees competing on the U.S. national team a more attainable goal for gymnasts at McEwing's level. "[The Olympics] can be your dream, but let's make your goal to stick all your landings at the next meet."
The coach also cautioned that as McEwing gets older, there are plenty of things — like socializing with friends and attending school events — that could pull him away from his present-day rigorous schedule.
But the preteen wears his determination on his sleeve, and he goes to the gym without fail, even when he's under the weather.
If, for example, his temperature is "a couple degrees off," he said that he'll "go to the gym and push through it." And if he's sick enough to actually stay home, McEwing will still "stretch out and do some conditioning."
With all the intense exercising and disciplined schedule, does gymnastics ever become more work than play?
"It's fun," he answered, "and I have a commitment that I like keeping."