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November 26, 2022

Local gymnast shines at national championships

Aptos High student Taj Gleitsman places in top-3 in mini-double, trampoline

APTOS—Aptos High student Taj Gleitsman set a goal to make the USA Gymnastics National Team one way or another.

The 16-year-old Corralitos native is now just one of seven athletes that earned a spot after a brilliant performance at the USA Gymnastics Tumbling & Trampoline National Championships on June 22-25. 

Gleitsman placed second in the Junior Individual Trampoline and third in the Double-Mini events at last month’s national finals at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. 

“I was stoked. I went up for my podium awards and when I came back they called me for the National team,” he said. “I was super happy, super excited.”

Gleitsman, who placed fourth overall this season in the Individual Trampoline, said his selection to the national team came as a surprise. Especially because he didn’t do extremely well in the three major competitions earlier this season. 

However, a second-place finish helped him extend his season.

Gleitsman was competing for Vargas Academy of Gymnastic Arts based in Scotts Valley. 

The gym took six other of its finest jumpers and tumblers to compete against nearly 1,800 other athletes at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.

Vargas Academy—which placed in the top 10—captured eight award-winning medals in the Double Mini-Trampoline, Individual Trampoline and Tumbling finals.

Medalists included Gleitsman, Nate Swanepoel, Kyle Schottgen, Faith Vokos, Anjali Clark, Abby McGregor and Ben Khaimovich.

“I was very flippin’ proud and impressed with my team,” said Vernon L. Vargas II, gym owner and coach. “I was pleased to see the amazing talents of my seven athletes competing at the 2022 USA Gymnastics National Championships. It was a rewarding experience for all that participated.”

The season begins in January with the first of three major competitions  and finishes with the National Championships in June. Athletes accumulate points that put them on path to earning a spot on the national team.

Gleitsman’s fellow teammate, Swanepoel, will also continue his season at the 2022 Trampoline & Tumbling World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria in November. He was one of six athletes for the national team invited to the competition.

“I’m very pleased with that and very happy for their success,” Vargas said about both Swanepoel and Gleitsman. 

Swanepoel placed second in the Intermediate Elite Double-Mini finals at the National Championships and finished seventh overall for the season. 

Gleitsman, who received his USA uniform at the National Championships, is now on one of the feeder teams for the Olympics, World Games and other international competitions.

“It means a lot because it kind of opens the door for me to compete internationally when I’m older,” he said. “Plus, I get to train with Olympic coaches at training camps.” 

Most kids that Gleitsman competes against have been training since they were 2 years old. He learned a lot of what he does now in his very own backyard. 

Gleitsman joined classes to get better at doing flips and later joined the competition team. He’s been on the trampoline since 2017 but he mentioned that it’s gone by really fast.

“I climbed the ranks a lot faster than many people do,” he said. 

Gleitsman has three-hour training sessions five days a week. He said he was motivated by watching everybody better than him. 

“I pushed more than people normally do when they take the slow path,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of fear and just went for everything, and just pushed.”

Vargas said he’s never had a kid make the national team or go on an international assignment. He never envisioned having one athlete, let alone two, make it to either the national or international squads. 

The 49-year-old longtime coach’s goal was to make it to Level 10 competition and be done with it. Instead, he had an athlete that made the elite development program. 

“From that point forward we were on the path toward [developing] elite athletes in my gym,” Vargas said.  

Vargas mentioned they have the biggest team—which includes 27 athletes—in Northern California. 

The next biggest gym has 16 athletes at World Elite Gymnastics in Rancho Santa Margarita in Southern California.

“It’s quite an honor to be where we are,” Vargas said.

Vargas started in gymnastics at a young age before he transitioned to cheerleading in high school. 

At the age of 18, Vargas got a job at a gymnastics facility and stuck with it ever since then. He started with artistic gymnastics before making the move to tumbling and trampoline about 15 years ago.

“It became harder and harder with the level of requirements for athletes at a younger age,” he said. 

Gleitsman said that Vargas is both compatible and a great coach.

“I think I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without him,” Gleitsman said. “We have a good vibe together.”

Gleitsman had former coaches in the past that said he couldn’t do certain things because he lacked proper training.

Gleitsman said that Vargas understands him and he’s progressed faster under Vargas than some other coaches. Especially those who may hold a student back because they might be too concerned for their safety.

“Vern knows he wouldn’t let me do something if I was going to get hurt and he understands my abilities,” he said. “That’s also helped me become where I’m at, get to where I’m at.”

Gleitsman is going to the first of four national team camps in Mountain Lakes, NJ on Sept. 16-18.  

He said his next goal is to try to make world age groups or world championships to compete on the international level.

“I haven’t done it, yet. But a lot of people I compete against have,” he said. “That’s my major goal, is to be able to compete internationally and do real well.” 

Juan Reyes
A Watsonville native who has a passion for local sports and loves his community. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College, San Jose State University and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumnus, he primarily covers high school athletics, Cabrillo College athletics, various youth sports in the Pajaro Valley and the Santa Cruz Warriors. Juan is also a video game enthusiast, part-time chef (at home), explorer and a sports junkie. Coaches and athletic directors are encouraged to report scores HERE.

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