ORANGE, NJ — Through her athletic facility in Orange, a local coach looks to find and nurture the next generation of gymnastics champions, by providing an inclusive training facility in their own neighborhood.
A professional in the gymnastics industry since 2000 and a professional in the child care industry since 1998, IyaSokoya Karade founded the Athletic Arts Academy in 2014. Coming from a humble, Southern upbringing, Karade moved as a young girl from Rahleigh, N.C., to Newark, where she grew up as a latchkey kid while her mother worked as a dispatcher for Rutgers University.
When her mother enrolled her in school, Karade realized her inspiration for teaching.
“Growing up, there were many teachers and coaches and community folk who shaped who I am today,” Karade said on Aug. 28. “I was fortunate that many would share with me what they saw as possibilities for my future, and, even though I sometimes didn’t listen as well as I should’ve, when I needed to push myself forward or get myself untangled, their words and motivation helped me significantly.
“That’s when I knew that I needed to become one of those community people who provided opportunities for children to feel noticed, valued and safe,” she continued. “I needed to become one of those people who inspired children and invested in them, because they were important to the future — whatever that may be.”
While Karade found her inspiration in teaching, she also began her formal training in competitive sports in Linden.
“My competitive nature comes directly from the streets,” Karade said. “My formal training came from being introduced to formal sports in the suburb of Linden. It was there that I received my first athletic uniforms and letter jackets — softball, cheerleading, track and field, and gymnastics. Once you were pegged as an athlete, all the coaches sought you out. Gym teachers made sure to remind you that your best friend set the day’s record for highest number of push-ups or sit-ups — whatever we were competing — and would dare us to break each other’s records.”
The idea to run her own athletic facility came to Karade as an adult, when she enrolled her daughters in dance class. After recognizing the athleticism and natural ability her own daughters showed, the family became a “gymnastics family,” with many hours spent at the gym, traveling and fundraising. But the nearest gymnastics clubs were still far away, and Karade felt too much focus was on winning at all costs and not enough focus was on child development. Karade also noted a lack of inclusion.
“In addition to the isolation of my children often being two of the few or the only African American athletes, the culture of gymnastics was taking an unhealthy toll on my oldest daughter,” Karade said. “Many times, I sat thinking that the only reason we don’t have more children of color in these programs is access. We don’t have anything like this in our hometown.”
After making major adjustments, which entailed adding a gymnastics room to her home and purchasing a 14-passenger van to transport area children to gymnastics clubs, it became clear to Karade that the best gymnastics club for her daughters would be one of her own design. Using personal funds, Karade rented a small warehouse to convert into a gymnastics school.
Now, the Athletic Arts Academy continues to help overlooked, young athletes. The athletic facility overcame pandemic challenges by incorporating online classes, fighting for grant money to improve the facility and securing a child care license. The facility is even a part of the Orange School District’s after-school program.
“The license allowed us to secure government contracts to provide child care for low-income, working families all year-round versus just the summer. Being a licensed child care provider insulates us from another shutdown should one arise,” Karade said. “The Athletic Arts Academy has much more to give local communities and the families with children we serve. Life is forever changed. Our adaptability serves as an example to our community as they figure out what’s next. Financial support in addition to business guidance is critical in ensuring we continue to impact the imaginations of young people.”
Karade has created hundreds of first-generation gymnasts and requires all her gymnasts to have passports for traveling opportunities. Her facility and her coaching provide an avenue for black gymnasts to be noticed.
“Black girls get to see a black woman in charge and as the owner,” Karade said. “We develop a lasting relationship built on empowerment.”
Photos Courtesy of IyaSokoya Karade