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Stretching Out: A Bit of Russia in the Heart of Texas
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The irony is almost too great to grasp. An average corner shopping center in Plano, Texas, is as nondescript as the next, with a Home Depot, a Braum's, and tucked in between, a WOGA.

WOGA? Passers-by can only wonder what is hidden behind the giant letters on the darkened glass. A chic boutique? A hip, new form of yoga, perhaps? Step inside the former grocery store and you quickly understand. Instead of spills on aisle three you see skills everywhere. On balance beam, uneven bars, pommel horse. OK, I saw a few spills, too.

It's 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and I am attending a media event that has made Plano proud. The mayor is there. A local news station, too. All are present to see the WOGA trio of Nastia Liukin, Carly Patterson and Hollie Vise, as well as their combined 21 Olympic and World Championship medals.

It's an intimate homecoming. Vise, a junior at Oklahoma, drove down the night before; Liukin had a few days off from the 2008 Tour of Gymnastics Superstars; and Patterson, who is still pursuing her music career, lives in the area, having moved back from Los Angeles.

The interior of the WOGA club in Plano, Texas.

Co-owner Yevgeny Marchenko tells me how the 31,000-square-foot gym came to be, how he and partner Valery Liukin built the above-ground pits because the landlord wouldn't allow any digging. (Thank goodness for that Home Depot next door!) He wistfully explains how Sept. 11 seven years ago scrapped their original plans to build their dream gym. But he also urges me to stop by their newest WOGA (they have three gyms), which is not too far away in Frisco. (I do.) It opened a few months ago, and Marchenko speaks of it as a proud father would his newborn child (photo below).

Valery and his wife, Anna Liukin, oversee the Plano gym, and I'm surprised by how many boys and girls of all ages are training at this hour. While most U.S. gymnastics clubs are virtually empty during the day, this gym is humming with focused activity. I am told that this is the first of two daily workouts for many of them. In between they will attend a partial day of school at nearby Spring Creek Academy. The atmosphere feels a lot like a gym I visited in Moscow years ago.

This doesn't surprise me. Liukin and Marchenko, who left the Soviet Union when it dissolved in the early 1990s, merely recreated the proven system that made each of them champions in their respective disciplines: Liukin in artistic gymnastics, Marchenko in sports acrobatics.

Again, the irony hits me. WOGA — World Olympic Gymnastics Academy — is a little bit of Russia in the heart of Plano, on the northeast corner of Custer and Parker. Gymnastics is the main focus of the day, and with no pressing time limits in the gym, kids can hone and perfect every last skill. An express lane no longer exists in this building.

WOGA's new gym in Frisco, Texas.

I see 2007 U.S. junior champion Rebecca Bross, a transplant from Michigan, swinging through routines on the bars. She missed the nationals last summer with three broken bones in her foot, but is looking sharp here. I realize that, for most of the people in the gym at this hour, gymnastics is their life. It is not just an after-school activity. The pace of practice is unhurried but steady. Few coaching comments are heard. Many of the gymnasts seem to be on autopilot, their workouts comfortably shaped by habit, driven by ambition.

The rare corrections I hear from Valery are matter-of-fact in tone. His gymnasts are working in an extremely difficult and technical sport, and he's there to pass along years of expertise. The gymnasts' motivation surely comes from the history of the gym, and giant signs on the wall are constant reminders.

Two of the vinyl banners honor the Olympic all-around titles of Patterson in 2004 and Liukin this year. Marchenko coached Patterson, and Nastia is coached by Valery. One gym, two coaches, two Olympic champions.

Mind-boggling as that is, I stop to wonder if the 2012 champion might also be here, chalking up for her next turn. Perhaps she is, over on aisle three.

Log onto www.woga.net for a photo gallery of the media event.

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