From late March until June 22, CATS Gymnastics just didn’t feel right to Lyndsie Norris.
“I didn’t like walking into an empty gym,” said Lyndsie, co-owner of the Cheshire business, located at 1701 Highland Ave., with her husband Wes. “We see these kids every day. I’ve worked with many of them for years. And then, suddenly, you don’t see them. It was difficult.”
The quiet space was a reminder of not just what had been put on hold, but also how uncertain the future for CATS truly was. When, or if, the gym would reopen was by no means a given.
“Even before we were forced to close, we had made the decision, the very difficult decision, to close ourselves,” said Lyndsie. “We just couldn’t, in good conscience, keep the gym open when the virus was spreading. But we didn’t know if it would be two weeks, three weeks … I don’t think in our wildest dreams we thought it would be a few months.”
CATS has been a staple in Cheshire for over 30 years, teaching generations of young girls and boys how to vault and tumble and compete against the best gymnasts the state has to offer. Lyndsie and Wes purchased the gym in August of 2019, after years of working for the previous owners.
“(They) kind of brought us in, in the hopes that we would eventually buy,” explained Wes, who had been an instructor at the school, off and on, for three decades. “It was perfect for us since this has pretty much been our lives.”
The transition, according to both Lyndsie and Wes, went “perfectly.” As new owners, they immediately went to work offering classes for recreational students and getting their team competitors ready for the season ahead.
But in February, the new owners’ first crisis hit. While both Lyndsie and Wes were away from the gym, and in the middle of a session, CATS was flooded. A pipe burst and water began pouring into the facility.
“When it began … the team girls and parents were here, and everyone was rushing in to try and help,” recalled Lyndsie.
The flood temporarily shut down the gym, but it would turn out to be nothing compared to what was on the horizon.
“Since we bought the place, we’ve had a flood, now a plague. We are just waiting for the locusts,” quipped Wes.
Shutting the doors at CATS meant a lot of sleepless nights for the new owners. As both count the gym as their full-time job and sole source of income, seeing a way to navigate through the initial part of the pandemic was difficult.
Neither took a paycheck for some time, and they were unsure whether the business would qualify for government loans being offered in order mitigate the financial impact of having to close. But in the end, it was the kindness of their customers that helped keep CATS afloat.
“We honestly didn’t know, will we be able to afford to reopen?” admitted Wes. “Many of the parents said that they would continue making their payments, even though they couldn’t be in the gym. It was so comforting to have them do that.”
“The families really have been so supportive and behind us through all of this,” added Lyndsie.
As the weeks of the lockdown stretched into months, the Norrises made sure to stay connected with their students. Team members downloaded a specific app that allowed them to stay in contact throughout the early part of the pandemic, and CATS produced different videos, some that included Lyndsie and Wes’s daughter, to keep students motivated and continuing their gymnastics.
When it was announced that CATS would be allowed to reopen in mid-June, Wes admits that both he and Lyndsie were at first unsure as to whether it was the right thing to do. A survey was sent out to all of CATS’ team members, asking whether they would feel comfortable sending their children back to the facility.
The response was overwhelming.
“Almost everyone said they would be happy to come back when we opened,” said Wes. “I think we were both pleasantly surprised.”
“Not only were they OK with sending the kids back, they were excited,” added Lyndsie. “One of the mothers had a countdown going for when we’d be reopening.”
While the Norrises were happy to see so many of their team competitors willing to return, what was most surprising was how many of the recreational class students were also excited about the reopening. At first, CATS limited their sessions to team competitors only, and then decided to begin recreational classes again on July 6.
“We said, OK, let’s see how this goes,” said Lyndsie. “I think we were just so surprised to see so many people coming back.”
But those returning to CATS are finding a different environment than the one they left in March — an environment focused on cleanliness and social distancing.
Wes explained that, throughout the pandemic, he has been consulting with multiple industry and public health officials to make sure that CATS is providing the safest facility possible. He has touched base with everyone from the Centers for Disease Control to other state gyms to find out how best to sanitize his gym and keep children safe.
The lobby of CATS has been cleared of most chairs and plexiglass has been installed at the front desk. All instructors wear masks throughout the day, and keep six feet apart from students unless a particular technique requires them to be in closer contact for safety reasons.
The entire facility, as well as the equipment, is cleaned at least four times a day, and parents are encouraged to drop students off without directly entering the gym area. Any parents or siblings who stay to watch classes are required to wear masks the entire time.
The biggest change, according to Wes, is in the number of students per class — down from seven to five — and fewer classes overall being offered.
Yet, while there may be fewer classes, that doesn’t mean less work for the Norrises. For instance, while under normal circumstances CATS would offer a 5-hour camp for 25 students, this summer the camps have been split in two so as to allow for more distancing in the facility.
“It makes for longer hours for me so we can make sure the kids are all kept spread out,” said Lyndsie.
Students are not required to wear masks while training, but several new restrictions have been put in place. Small black dots have been placed on the mats, separated by approximately six feet, indicating where students must stand when in a group. No one is allowed to use the girls locker room or the water fountain, and instead of having just one chalk bucket used by all the girls, each student has their own chalk, which is used to improve grip.
For the Norrises, it’s all about their newest motto — adaptation and accommodation. It’s what’s allowed them to keep a positive outlook through the pandemic, and what guides them as they approach an uncertain future.
“We are pretty good at thinking on our feet, and we are going to continue to do that,” said Wes.
“We will continue to make the safety of the students our first priority, continue to stay on top of all the latest recommendations.”
“Because of what we’ve been through, whatever the future holds, we know we’ll land on our feet,” added Lyndsie. “Cats always land on their feet.”