Field of Dreams Gymnastics looks to climb out of the ashes

Published 3:13 pm Monday, January 22, 2024

Fourteen hours before the fire that destroyed a warehouse in Isle of Wight County’s industrial park off Benns Church Boulevard, 11-year-old Mackenzie Hess was inside the building performing cartwheels atop a metal beam suspended 3 feet above the ground.

The morning after the Jan. 18 blaze, McKenzie’s mother, Julie, saw the beam – which had cost Field of Dreams Gymnastics $4,000 to install – partially melted in a heap of ash and rubble. The entire 23,000-square-foot warehouse Field of Dreams had shared with roughly a dozen tenants was a total loss.

Breaking the news to Field of Dreams’ more than 60 gymnasts, who range in age from 7 to 13, hasn’t been easy.

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“How do you tell an 8-year-old girl who’s just so excited she’s doing these advanced tricks the night before her gym burns down?” Coach Barry Keeley asked, rhetorically.

Mackenzie broke down in tears upon hearing the news from her father, Nick, when she returned from school. So did 10-year-old Ivy Kole and her 7-year-old brother, Luca, one of Field of Dreams’ handful of male gymnasts, according to their grandmother Carol.

But a day later, Mackenzie was back at it, smiling while hanging upside down from a rope at a gym in Chesapeake, 36 miles away. Keeley and the Hesses, who founded Smithfield’s fledgling gymnastics program roughly four years ago, are determined to rebuild. They’ve done it before. Keeley had been coaching the daughters of a naval surgeon, Marshall Green, at Windsor Gymnastics 15 miles south of Smithfield when he found himself abruptly laid off.

When Windsor Gymnastics shuttered during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nick and Julie went looking for an alternative closer to home and partnered with Keeley and Field of Dreams co-owners Anthony and Brittany Landes to create one themselves.

Field of Dreams found its first home, and namesake, when Green offered the use of his 2,500-square-foot cattle barn, located on a private dirt street dubbed “Field of Dreams Road” in a rural area just outside Smithfield.

Mackenzie, Julie said, had learned to do cartwheels and somersaults around the house at an early age and had quickly taken to the sport during her first gymnastics lessons when the family lived in Williamsburg.

“She just has this very determined attitude; she’s focused and she loves it,” her mom said.

When the Navy transferred Green to Lynchburg in 2022, Field of Dreams moved into the 6,300-square-foot, circa-1980 detached gymnasium at the former James River Christian Academy, which had shuttered in 2007.

“It was filled with trash; it was filled with old refrigerators, toilets, everything,” Keeley recalled. “We had to empty that out, disinfect it, paint it.”

A year later, on Feb. 23, 2023, Julie and Keeley received an eviction notice informing them Hampton Roads Classical would be repurposing the gym and one of the two classroom buildings to once again be a school.

“We had to be out in 30 days, move a whole gym again right in the middle of competition season,” Keeley said.

Keeley credits divine intervention for Field of Dreams’ third and most recent home at the warehouse becoming available on April 1 of last year. He’s used to starting over, albeit this time without any gymnastics equipment.

“Many of us are strong Christians and we believe God will show us a way once again,” Keeley said.

Nick said Field of Dreams is now searching for a 5,000- to 7,000-square-foot building with an open floor plan that’s also tall enough to house the balance beams and other equipment intrinsic to the sport. While he acknowledges there aren’t many such buildings in and around the town, “we want to stay in Smithfield,” Nick said. “This is where we built the team.”

In the meantime, Field of Dreams’ gymnasts will be practicing for the upcoming season at Hurricane Gymnastics in Chesapeake. It’s a 45-minute drive from Smithfield, but 

Hurricane Gymnastics’ owner, Tony Hampton, is a friend of Keeley’s, one of many Keeley has made in his 56 years as a gymnast and coach who have reached out with offers of support following the fire.

“I have friends all over the United States in the gymnastics world who know about this now,” Keeley said.

Keeley, now 80, was himself a gymnast at the University of Iowa during the 1960s, which he calls the “glory years of men’s collegiate gymnastics.” Back then, there were 200 male gymnastics competition teams across the country. Today, there are only 15. In 1980, he coached a 13-year-old who qualified for the Olympics but never got to compete due to then-President Jimmy Carter’s pushing the United States and its allies to pull their Olympic teams from that year’s summer games in protest of the former Soviet Union’s late-1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

Keeley conceded that the Jan. 19 practice, held less than two days since the fire, likely wouldn’t be business as usual.

“It’ll be hard,” Keeley said. “You can’t expect these kids to just hop on the equipment like they were.”

He described the intent of practicing the day after the fire as “more of a reunion for the team,” or perhaps a requiem for Field of Dreams’ former facility, which he described as being not only a gym but a “second home” for many of Smithfield’s gymnasts.

“When you build something that is a safe place for so many …this is a big bump in the road but we’ve got a  lot of people wanting to help us over the bump,” Keeley said.