How Her Talent and Passion for Gymnastics Turned into a Lifelong Career
By Vicki de Vries
“Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life!” Most people nod in agreement and then walk away.
Not Jodi Levine, who started Jodi’s Gym 32 years ago and has proven that love and work can be a perfect 10, an old gymnastic term for the highest possible score. How did she do it, and how does she manage to continue running a successful business?
Jodi took what she loved and excelled in–gymnastics–and turned that passion into a new business idea—Jodi’s Gym, a gymnastics company catering to young children in New York City. The concept proved to be so successful that she eventually opened a Jodi’s Gym center in Mount Kisco. Over the years, Jodi and her staff, many of whom have been working with Jodi for over 15 years, have developed numerous offerings that range from “Teeny Tumblers” (ages 9 months to walking) to Girls Advanced Gymnastics (1st to 8th grade), attracting thousands upon thousands of children.
What accounts for the tremendous success Jodi’s Gym has enjoyed during the past 32 years? Is it the great business concept or the fact that all of the instructors are USA Gymnastics certified? Or maybe it’s the rich variety of offerings in a kid-friendly, pleasant, safe environment? Certainly, all of those factors have played, and continue to play, a key role in the Jodi’s Gym phenomenon.
But what has really made the difference is Jodi Levine herself.
Jodi’s Dance…to Gymnastics
One of Jodi’s earliest memories is about her wanting to be a ballet teacher. At around five years of age, she started taking dance lessons and acrobatic tumbling. “I really enjoyed being upside down,“ Jodi said. (Could that be when she began acquiring her remarkably perceptive slant on things?)
At age 12, Jodi began her first gymnastics class and by age 13, began competitive gymnastics. Entering her senior year of high school, she received a scholarship to attend the Walnut Hill School for Performing Arts in Boston. That honor required that she leave her hometown of Spring Valley in Rockland County, NY, for the year in order to pursue gymnastics training along with other scholarship recipients from around the country.
Jodi had such a successful senior year at the Walnut Hill School that after competing at the national level, she was awarded an athletic scholarship to Indiana State University’s nationally ranked women’s gymnastics team. She graduated with a BA in psychology and a certification coaching of gymnastics/physical education minor.
At that point, Jodi believed her gymnastics days were over: “After ISU, I truly did believe that I had completed my ‘gymnastics piece.’”
Next on her list was attending New York University to complete a master’s degree in psychology/organizational behavior. With graduation approaching, Jodi decided to take a break prior to pursuing a doctorate in child psychology. At the same time, she experienced what she described as a “gut moment pulling me back into the world of kids’ health, fitness and movement education.”
During her break from graduate studies, Jodi returned to coaching competitive gymnastics, something she had always loved. Here is where her story really takes off… “I really wanted to reach out to all kids, not just the ones who were inclined to be competitive gymnasts,” Jodi said. “I saw there was a great need for all kids to reap the psychological, as well as the physical, benefits of the sport that had given me so much. This was back in 1980, when ‘mommy and me’ gymnastics really did not exist. I saw a niche that was missing.” That niche was “gymnastics for the pure enjoyment, fun, education and benefit, where kids could work toward their personal best without having to compete for a score or how they compared to other kids.”
“In the sport of gymnastics, every fiber of a young person’s mind and body is fully engaged. I felt that so many children were missing out on the benefits gymnastics gave me, and I felt I just had to give it back to as many who would like to have the chance.”
The idea became a cause celebre for Jodi: “I felt as if this was what I was meant to do. There really was no stopping me. The energy was endless, the passion was so strong. Although the work was hard and those early days were very long, it never really felt like ‘work.’” Her athletic father was her main cheerleader early on: “If you love it, go for it!” In fact, “Dad always encouraged my sister and me to get back up, dust off the dirt and try again,” said Jodi. “He always wanted me to believe there was nothing I could not do because of my gender.”
Valuable words that would come in handy because in those early days, Jodi had no banker, no credit, no equipment, no staff, and no experience running a business. Surely the odds were against her, but Jodi was armed with a dream, boundless energy, and a strong passion for gymnastics and helping children.
Once Jodi’s Gym opened in New York City, it became an immediate success–the game in town for young children and their mothers. However, the business soon outgrew its space, and Jodi realized she would need to hire and train her first employee, who turned out to be a former student of hers. Her second employee was her mother, Carole, who came to “help out” with some administrative duties on a temporary basis. (To this day, Carole continues to assist her daughter’s business in New York City.)
Today, at any given time, Jodi’s Gym NYC and Mount Kisco between them will have from 25 to 40 employees—full and part time.
A Matter of Balance
Operating a business requires finding the right balance and constantly fine-tuning. Over the years, Jodi has developed a successful philosophy of business that is based on personal experience, common-sense, and a deep love for children and gymnastics.
Keeping a business on course includes “staying true to core values and goals while constantly innovating” and “keeping pricing fair while compensating staff well,” not to mention “maintaining the highest quality programs, high teacher/student ratios, and an extremely competent, well-trained, long-term, experienced staff.”
If that list sounds like too much somersaulting, Jodi would disagree because it’s what she has been doing for over 30 years. Her key advice to any business owner: “Listen to your customers, treat them as you want to be treated, be caring and sincere and accessible, and constantly innovate, always keeping in mind what is in the kids’ best interest.”
But, perhaps most importantly, Jodi is genuinely “in sync” with the kids themselves; she and her staff support and root them on because they’ve seen the positive results over and again, “knowing that children in our programs are feeling more confident and are developing a love for fitness and movement,” she stated.
Ultimately, “if this early positive exposure to movement keeps kids wanting to move and engage in active pursuits as they grow, we will have added to a healthier world. To me, that is success.”
Straddling Two Worlds
In the middle of her career, Jodi’s own two children became her students, and she and her husband, Hal, became, in effect, customers. Wearing the customer chapeau, she was able to see things from a mother’s perspective and learned to listen to the mothers who brought their children to her gymnastic classes.
In fact, Jodi felt better prepared to tackle perhaps the biggest challenge of all–being a parent: “Seeing so many different children and parenting styles over the years really helped prepare me to some extent for becoming a mom myself. I had so many role models.”
In a refreshingly candid way, Jodi added, “They helped me to be a better mom and got me to thinking, ‘What does a mom want? What does she deserve?’ That’s when I really started listening to what parents want for their children.”
Now that those mothers are grandparents, Jodi loves the fact that their children are bringing their kids to learn gymnastics: “When our ‘legacies,’ or second-generation kids, come through the door and the mom tells me of her great memories as a child at the gym and that she is now bringing her own child, I have been brought to tears on many occasions.”
Being sensitive to the needs and interests of families with children with all types of special needs, allergies, likes and dislikes further accounts for the variety of programs at Jodi’s Gym.
That sensitivity came close to home, shaping the parenting style of Jodi and her husband, Hal, who made physical activity and music a big part of their children’s lives. It also served as the inspiration for some innovative classes at Jodi’s Gym. For example, Jodi introduced gym and music classes after noticing how much her then two-year-old son, Will, enjoyed music. Later, when her daughter, Marly turned two, she enjoyed the musician Bobby Doowah so much that Jodi began featuring him in Jodi’s Gym birthday parties.
Now that Will and Marly are young adults and Jodi and her husband, Hal, are empty nesters, Jodi is thrilled that both children love working with kids. Will is a medical student, plays guitar and enjoys a lot of sports, including running, hiking, and skiing, while Marly, who is a junior in college, sings a capella, enjoys working out, yoga and dance. “And she recently became a Zumba instructor!” said Jodi.
Given all the successes, does Jodi have any regrets about her business? To her credit, Jodi freely admits a few: delegating more earlier on, asking for more help, taking less to heart, and being able to see more of the big picture. Would she do it all over again? A resounding definitely: “I have learned so much about people, relationships and myself. The bottom line is I feel I am really making a difference, and that makes it all worthwhile!”
Jodi’s Gym has plans to add more fitness and wellness-based classes to its offerings as well as expanding the “Jodi’s To Go” side of the business, which brings the Jodi’s Gym brand to schools, daycares, camps, and other locations in New York City and Westchester.
Nearest and perhaps dearest to Jodi’s heart is her plan to start programs for underserved populations in New York City and Westchester: “I would love to fill the gap for kids who come from homes where an active, healthy lifestyle is not so easy.”
That expresses not merely Jodi Levine’s business acumen, but more importantly, her warm and caring heart. Jodi is truly an “all-around” winner. Gymnastic aficionados will know that means “a strong competitor on all events.”
Vicki de Vries is a freelance writer/editor and educator living in Westchester “country.”