Big dreams, little gymnasts

Niu Si Zho trains her eyes on the four-inch-wide balance beam. In a practiced release of energy, she leaps forward, turns, flips backward, and comes to a stop precisely on her mark without so much as wiggle of imbalance. To a visitor it is an impressive bit of gymnastics for an 8-year-old.

But the routine doesn't elicit a response from those at the Shi Cha Hai Sports School in Beijing, where all the kids are working on routines every bit as difficult.

Founded in 1958, the school is the oldest training center for young athletes in Beijing. The elite academy, which provides coaching in several sports, invites children who have shown promise in local competitions or have been noticed by coaches for their ability. Parents pay room and board and the Chinese government pays for the children's education and training.

Training to be a future champion is intense. There is no giggling or horseplay as the students enter the gym. It's all business during three-hour sessions, held six days per week.

The boys are divided into groups around the various pieces of equipment used in men's gymnastics - pommel horse, rings, parallel bars, and horizontal bar.

The well-defined muscles on the 6- to 10-year-old boys and girls give the illusion that they are older. But their small stature and the sight of one boy working out in Winnie the Pooh underwear make one realize that these athletes are potential representatives for the 2012 Olympics, not the 2008 competition in Beijing.

Who will make it to the highest level is difficult to predict, says He Xiu Min, an instructor at the school. The children mature at different times. "One of my students who trained here is now on the national team," she says. "When she was this age she was ordinary. But two years later she became something special."

Three girls pause after their workout to talk with a visitor. They giggle and cling to each other and, unlike during training, act their age. The training is difficult but they are getting a good education, too, the girls say.

Before leaving, some visitors pose with the young gymnasts for "I knew her when..." photos. The girls smile and laugh and scamper off to get some rest. Tomorrow the long quest for gold continues.

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