Tallmadge -- Cheerleading center American Elite is celebrating its 10th season working with children and developing them into competitive athletes.

The business opened for its first season July 5, 2005, at 81 Northwest Ave. Founded by four parents who met and became friends while their children were participating in competitive cheerleading, the owners saw an opportunity to create their own business in Tallmadge.

"The thing with us is that we all have unique qualities, and we just kind of fit together like a puzzle, not without debate and not without some struggles along the way," said Doylestown resident Wanda Whipkey, who along with her husband is the majority owner of the business. "I think we all just agree, and we're all very loyal and committed to growing as an organization and as people."

To complement Wanda Whipkey's gymnastics and business management background and Hudson resident and head of the competitive cheerleading program Laura Dudley's cheerleading experience, Gary Whipkey focuses on customer service and facility management. Barberton resident Caryn Hale handles the finances for the company. Wanda Whipkey also is the visionary of the company. Because it's a small business, she said the owners help each other out when necessary.

For the first three years, the owners and a couple of coaches ran the business that focuses on introducing children as young as 2 years of age to the principals of competitive gymnastics and cheer. The program seeks to develop athletes' skills through childhood and adolescence to prepare them to compete at the collegiate level.

The business grew when it created American Elite Kids that provides recreational tumbling, gymnastics and cheerleading programs for children who prefer to take classes once per week for an hour rather than the minimum of six hours per week required with the competitive cheerleading program that has its cheerleaders traveling to competitions throughout the country.

Wanda Whipkey said the business and others similar to it often have a difficult time being financially successful. Throw into the mix the recession and resulting tough economy and slow recovery, the business has really had tough challenges.

"We grew pretty fast. We grew at an average of about 15 percent for the first five years. We started with 50 kids," said Wanda Whipkey.

In its seventh season, the business maintained rather than grew, and each year since, it has grown.

She said making sure the athletes who train with the organization and their parents are happy has helped it weather those challenges, along with owners' continued commitment to their faith and community service. The company has raised $150,000 through its Children's Cheer Classic fundraiser for Akron Children's Hospital over the past nine years.

The business also is working on a fundraiser for Lake Township resident and Perry Local Schools teacher Sharon Budd, who was injured earlier this month in Pennsylvania when a rock thrown from a highway overpass struck the windshield of her car and hit her in the face.

"We're going to call upon the cheer community because [Sharon Budd's daughter Kaylee Budd] cheered her whole life," Wanda Whipkey said. Kaylee Budd graduated from American Elite's competitive cheer program last year.

The fundraiser called "Shouts for Sharon" seeks to raise $100,000 for her ongoing medical care.

"That's something that I really want the community to understand. It hasn't just been 10 years of teaching kids how to cheer and tumble; it's been 10 years of really giving back," Wanda Whipkey said. "That's at the heart of the ownership and the families in our organization."

Since the company's beginning, Whipkey said it has been a goal to create opportunities for gymnastics professionals to build careers as she said the industry typically isn't known for having many. The owners' children worked at the business as coaches and administrative workers. A couple of their children, who are now in their 20s, are heading up the music design and choreography company DZine that's a subset of American Elite.

"In our kind of business, you have to be able to do multiple things in order to have a career," Wanda Whipkey said.

The plan is to pass on American Elite to their children after the owners retire, she said.

Tumbling into the future

To help the business reach its goal of growing its competitive cheer program from about 400 children to 500, American Elite opened its second location in Mentor last June.

It also is continuing to add new offerings, including a mobile gym program that consists of recreational tumbling and movement classes at day care centers and preschools.

"We really want to put more programming in for kids 10 and under. We're looking at doing an after-school program and that should be implemented in the next year in Tallmadge," Wanda Whipkey said. "Also [we're] really growing our summer camp program, which we started this year, and [we're] also growing our class program for ages 2 to 7."

Within the next two years, the owners would like to add dance classes and get into consulting for cheerleading and start-up children's activity centers.

American Elite employs nearly 30 workers, a combination of part-time and full-time, at its Tallmadge facility and five at its Mentor location.

Contact this reporter at 330-541-9428 or hschoenstein@recordpub.com

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