'Bin' there, done that: Gym Bin founder Mary Allen keeps her passion for helping children as she heads toward semi-retirement
BEMIDJI — Mary Allen isn't looking for medals.
The longtime owner of the Gym Bin in Bemidji believes the impact of the facility is most apparent by the number of children spread out throughout the gym, not necessarily the number of banners adorning its walls.
"I'd just as soon rather have kids all over the place," Allen said. "I certainly hope our teams do well, and they get a lot of our time and our space. But it's lots of fun to see lots of kids doing great things."
Allen started the Gym Bin in 1987, not because of a passion for gymnastics but a passion for children.
"I didn't know anything about gymnastics," she said. "Back when we did it in phy ed, I hated it, and I knew absolutely nothing about business."
Allen was teaching physical education in Walker when a friend asked her if she'd be interested in opening a gymnastics facility in Bemidji. At the time, gymnastics was offered through community education, but without a dedicated practice area or gym, it proved difficult to cultivate program growth. Not only did staff have to constantly put up and take down equipment, but the facility itself could be otherwise booked.
"It just didn't work well," she said. "We started a team, and then it was state meet tournament time, but we couldn't use the facility. They had something else going on."
The Gym Bin opened in the fall of 1987 across the river from Pamida, operating then in the Quonset building that now houses KandiLand Learning Center. In 1993, the Gym Bin relocated the Quonset building, attached a new building to it, and opened in its current location along Washington Avenue South. Another addition was added in 2001.
From its inception, the Gym Bin has offered recreation classes for non-competing gymnasts while also developing athletes for its competitive USA Gymnastics teams, known as the Bemidji Aerials. Today, recreational classes are available for children aged 1 and up, while Aerials compete in either the Junior Olympics program — a more intense and demanding program for serious gymnasts — or the Xcel program, which is less intense and allows gymnasts more flexibility in their routines in earlier levels. The Bemidji High School also utilizes the Gym Bin for practices and home meets.
"It's good for the kids. It's good for the community. It's good for the girls," Allen said. "They learn much more confidence and become more confident in themselves, in what they can do."
Flipping the page
Allen recently announced that Cassandra (Schram) Hietala has become a partner in the ownership of the Gym Bin. Hietala, who first took a preschool tots class at age 3 with Allen as her teacher, competed for years with the Bemidji Aerials, reaching Level 9. (For context, Olympians are Elite gymnastics who advance beyond Level 10.)
"I've always wanted Cassandra to be involved with (the ownership of the gym). I've always seen that that would be a good fit," said Allen, who displays Psalm 127:3—"Children are a gift from God."—on the Gym Bin's walls and letterhead. "She's a believer and has a lot of the same thoughts I have about how to treat kids. She has always been a good, hard-working gymnast and a great coach."
Hietala earned a spot on the Hamline University gymnastics team, but in the wake of an injury during her senior year at Bemidji High School, she instead opted to retire from competitive gymnastics and attend Bemidji State University. She had been teaching recreational gymnasts by then and began transitioning toward working with competitive gymnasts.
"There's a lot that goes into competitions that you can't practice, nerves and confidence," Hietala said. "Seeing them out there at competitions, doing the very best you know they can do, that's a win to me."
Now 26, Hietala recently completed her fourth year as a first-grade teacher at Blackduck Elementary and will continue to teach full-time while working evenings at the Gym Bin, running the competitive programs and working with their coaches, gymnasts and parents.
"I think gymnastics is an exciting sport, but sometimes the girls get super frustrated, and I have to sit them down," Hietala said. "It's not like basketball where you learn to dribble, you learn to shoot, and maybe you learn little tricks here and there but it's kind of the same thing, you just do it over and over again. We don't do that here. You learn a cartwheel and then you move on. You learn a roundoff, and then an aerial. It's always challenging, fun and exciting."
Allen will stay involved in the gym but will move toward semi-retirement. Hietala will manage the competitive programs while Mikayla Simon, who joined the gym in 2005, will continue as general manager.
Allen and Hietala agreed they will complement each other as business partners, with Allen's commitment to developing children's self-confidence and Hietala's interest in competitive programming.
"The least of my nerves is working with Mary," Hietala said. "We've always chatted about things (at the gym), and she's always trusted me, taken my word and my suggestions. I'm looking forward to it."
Gym Bin by the numbers:
Preschool-aged gymnasts: 250
Recreational gymnasts: 210
Pre-competitive gymnasts: 30
Xcel gymnasts (all levels): 20
JO gymnasts (all levels): 20
Boys in gymnastics (all preschool-aged): 30
High school gymnasts: 10