Evo Athletics opens new location with nontraditional ideas

Jason Collins lines up some of his gymnasts following a pratice at Evo Athletics.
Jason Collins lines up some of his gymnasts following a pratice at Evo Athletics.

Stare at the layout of the new Evo Athletics gymnasium in Sarasota and some patterns eventually begin to emerge. In one direction, athletes flip and tumble along mats and trampolines. In another, perpendicular direction, the gymnasts swing from rings and bars.

Jason Collins, the chief athletics officer at Evo and a former professional opera singer, comes from a nontraditional background and brings a unique perspective to coaching the gymnasts at Evo’s new facility, which had its soft opening earlier this week.

He’s placed an emphasis on training male gymnasts despite its relative lack of popularity and marketability when compared with female gymnastics. He’s enlisted the help of a sports psychologist to actually help create the layout of the new gym.

“He’s a big fan of the artistic parts,” said Clayton Spencer, who previous trained under Collins and now is his assistant coach at Evo.

An outside perspective has already made Collins one of the most accomplished gymnastics coaches in Florida, even before he got his own state-of-the-art gym like the one where he’s now spending more than eight hours a day. Now he has his own facility to implement the ideas that come with his unorthodox background on a full-time basis. After spending a year of planning with co-owners Kyle Lawton and Lydia Lawton, Evo finally has its space.

Although a 15-year professional career as an opera singer sticks out on Collins’ resume, his gymnastics-specific list of accomplishments is just as impressive. He was a gymnast himself until about 15, when he first began coaching. He had to put it away when he went to attend the Juilliard School in New York and only could sporadically volunteer as an assistant coach during breaks from touring as a professional. He retired three years ago, a few years after moving down to Florida, and quickly rose to prominence on the coaching circuit, first training athletes at South Florida Gymnastics and then working with likely 2016 Olympian Simone Biles at the World Champions Centre in Spring, Texas.

He’s been a coach both the men’s and women’s United States teams at the AAU Junior Olympic Games, currently coaches on the state Elite staff and was the 2015 Florida Coach of the Year.

“He’s like a second dad for me,” Spencer said. “He’s here for the kids and not just a coach. He’s a mentor.”

There are obvious similarities between gymnastics as Collins teaches and opera as he practiced. The sport is formally called artistic gymnastics. A background as an artist helps.

Gymnastics is as much a sport of grace and precision as it is one of athleticism and power. Most sports feature a degree of artistry. Few are as overtly dependent on that artistry as gymnastics.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Isn’t that way different?’” Collins said. “The attention to technique and detail when I was memorizing 700 pages of archaic German — it’s the same discipline that this sport takes. It’s very refined. It’s called artistic gymnastics and that’s my whole philosophy, is bringing an artistic quality to high difficulty.”

There is a degree of artistry to the work that has gone into laying out the new Evo gym. Gymnasts flip in one direction and swing in another not just to prevent any disorientation for the gymnasts, but also to create a more visually pleasing spectacle for spectators and judges.

There are only minor details to remind viewers that the new facility was an old warehouse. A handful of garage doors hide in corners of the gym. The rest of the gym is covered in bright blue and green mats and pits of foam cubes.

The gym unofficially opened Monday and by 10 a.m. it was already buzzing with about a dozen of the male gymnasts Collins has been working with off and on for three years. About a year ago, when he left South Florida Gymnastics for a brief retirement, most of this group started training in Clearwater. Their weekdays were dominated by travel and training — a 7 a.m. wakeup for school followed by a 2 p.m. meetup at a gas station to carpool for the hour-and-a-half trek across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. After four hours of practice, another hour-and-a-half trip back to Bradenton or Sarasota got most of them home around 10:30 p.m.

They were ultimately the motivation to pull Collins back out of retirement and to the head of training at Evo Athletics, and his influence is already tangible less than a week into the opening of the new facility. For almost an hour Monday, Collins watched while Spencer ran practice almost entirely on his own. A core concept of Evo’s development lies in coaching, and Collins has had plenty to draw from.

“I had a luxury of having a lot of great coaches, even in gymnastics when I was a young kid, so when I turned 15 that’s what I wanted to do, was be a gymnastics coach,” Collins said. “And then I had the luxury of having the best teaching in the world at Juilliard.

“I’ve had just the beauty of having great coaches and I wanted to pass that along.”

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2