Half-blind and deaf, former BYU gymnast breaks down barriers

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Imagine balancing on something four inches wide, four feet in the air. Next, imagine doing backflips, runs, jumps, turns and splits while maintaining your balance. Heart pounding, crowd roaring and chalk-covered hands eventually gives way to intense focus, muscle memory and calm assurance. Finally, imagine doing all this while being deaf and half blind.

Derek and Aimee Pond with their four children: Callie, Kaiden, Brian and Justin. Derek and Aimee Pond own Champion Sports Center in Saratoga Springs. (Maggi Raymond)
Derek and Aimee Pond pose with their four children: Callie, Kaiden, Brian and Justin. Derek and Aimee own Champion Sports Center in Saratoga Springs. (Maggi Raymond)

Welcome to the life of author and former elite-level gymnast Aimee Walker Pond. Unfathomable does not begin to describe her life’s journey and her reaction to it. Aimee currently co-owns Champion Sports Center with her husband, Derek Pond, in Saratoga Springs.

Aimee first got into gymnastics when she was 7 years old.

“When I was young, I went to watch my cousins do gymnastics and I was just fascinated with that,” Aimee said. “I thought that was amazing, basically how you can fly. You’re like a bird, like a butterfly.”

The first time Aimee went to a gymnastics practice, she wasn’t allowed to practice because the coach said that he didn’t know how to coach someone who is half blind and deaf.

“We initially thought it would be fun to have (Aimee) be with her cousins,” Aimee’s mom, Patty Walker, said. “We were so sad when we got word that she couldn’t participate in classes because she was deaf.”

This sadness turned to cautious optimism a few weeks later. One of her cousins broke her foot and Aimee’s family decided to attempt to have her fill the vacancy.

“We didn’t expect much at first, but she was excited, so we said, ‘Alright, let’s very cautiously get involved,'” Walker said. “We would take her out of classes if they told us to.”

The coach approached the family after two weeks of practice. Fear turned to relief as the coach told them that Aimee was a good gymnast and he wanted to coach her.

Aimee confided in her mom the lofty goal she had after hearing the good news from the coach.

“I told my mom that I wanted to go to the hearing Olympics, not the deaf Olympics. I wanted to be able to show the world that I could do it,” Aimee said. “(I wanted) to be able to show parents that have deaf children or children with disabilities or challenges to not push or brush them aside or tell them they can’t do things — but to say that that they can.”

Aimee set out on her ambitious goal and her journey was marked with success. She found a way to bridge the gap between the hearing and deaf communities and communicated with her coaches and teammates.

She worked harder and harder to ensure her competency in each event.

“When I was young, it was just fun. But when I advanced levels, it was still fun, but it was more overcoming your fears and mental confidence and kind of the connection between the mind and body,” Aimee said.

Her reward came when she made it to the Olympic trials in 2000 and eventually competed at the Division I level for UCLA and BYU.

Derek and Aimee met briefly while Derek was serving an ASL LDS mission in Aimee’s hometown in California. Aimee returned to the Orem area where she was training and then attended Derek’s homecoming in Provo.

Derek and Aimee went on their first date after being set up by his mother. The pair was married two and a half years later. They are now the proud parents of four children: Callie, Kaiden, Brian and Justin.

Aimee ended her competing career in 2008 and life took the couple to California. Derek was a strength and conditioning coach while finishing up his physical therapy degree. The couple, however, always had the goal of opening a gymnastics center and had started filling their garage with gymnastics equipment.

The time came for Derek to do his clinical rotations and the couple pondered and prayed where to move next. Their initial option didn’t feel right, but then a house in Saratoga Springs opened up. A few days later a gymnastics center in Saratoga Springs became available.

“It was like everything just kind of happened. It was like the world just opened up and everything just fell into place,” Derek said.

Aimee and Derek moved their family to Saratoga Springs in March 2015. Champion Sports Center opened the following month.

“Our plan was we wanted to do gymnastics, indoor soccer and physical therapy, and that is still our long-term goal. That’s our dream,” Derek said.

Champion Sports Center goes beyond being merely a place for gymnastics, indoor soccer and physical therapy. It proves to be a place to bridge communities and provide equal opportunities.

“I want to be able to give an opportunity for anybody – even if they have a disability – to have access (an) opportunity” Aimee said. “I’m sorry if I’m getting a little emotional, but I want parents to know that even if your kid has a disability, they can do it. They can do anything. They may not make the Olympics, but they will have an opportunity to enjoy.”

Derek and Aimee know both sides of the coin. They each know both the hearing and deaf communities and they work as a team to provide a place where the gap between the two communities is diminished. Aimee’s mom, Patty, knows the goal that her daughter and son-in-law have and sees how their combined skills positively impact their business.

“God has opened up so many unique experiences to them. They have heart and understanding,” Patty said. “They have the support of each other and they know how to push without being overbearing and to bring out the best in each of the students.”

Derek and Aimee hope to expand their business in the coming years, but for now they want to show that through love, hard work and reaching out to others, the gap between hearing and deaf communities can be overcome.