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SSAE Gymnast Balances Athletics and Academics in D49 High Performance Program

14-year-old Ariana Leedy is winning.SSAE student Ariana Leedy performs on the beam

At first glance, the Springs Studio for Academic Excellence student’s size might fool the casual onlooker. The stats show the diminutive SSAE freshman is a fierce competitor on the Colorado Springs Aerials Gymnastics team, going into the Colorado Gymnastics Institute’s (CGI) state championships at the end of March with a dazzling record. She added another “W” when she finished in the top spot among Level 9 gymnasts in Colorado.

“I’ve been on a winning streak all season,” Ariana said, smiling. “Every competition I’ve been to, I’ve won the ‘all around’ (vault, bars, beam, floor)... So I’ve been undefeated this whole season.”

The CGI’s Level 9 state champion is matching her all around excellent athletic performance at school, maintaining a 4.0 grade point average while racking up an undefeated season. The balancing act requires managing a very full plate of training, travel, competition and school.

“These kids are amazing: they train 20 hours a week,” said Ariana’s mother Kristina Shoun. “By the time [Ariana] was in fifth grade she was already training 20+ hours a week. For any kid this age to have that kind of drive and then factor in school is huge.”

A typical in-season week for Ariana includes nearly 30 hours of gym-time, followed by late-week travel to appear in weekend competitions. Staying on top of every priority is a team effort that extends beyond the gym.

“Izzy and Mr. Knoche have taken what I’m doing and made it a goal to help me,” said Ariana, explaining the support she receives from the staff at SSAE. Vladislav “Izzy” Izboinikov, the iConnect Zone’s coordinator of special student projects and David Knoche, executive principal for SSAE and The Campus developed the High Performance Program (HPP) for student athletes like Ariana who have found a pathway to compete outside D49.

Pictured l to r: Dave Knoche, SSAE principal, Ariana Leedy, Kathy Vigil: Ariana's coach, Vladislav “Izzy” Izboinikov

The SSAE “Google meets Starbucks” learning environment takes a unique approach to work sports into its program offerings. Active partnerships with the United States Olympic Committee, National Governing Bodies, and other high performance organizations, along with Izzy’s background in training olympic athletes, helped usher in the HPP about five years ago. The blended learning model is a perfect fit for Ariana, who participates both online and in person. As an HPP student-athlete, Ariana can also complete coursework over the summer.

“She has less classes while she’s in season and that model reflects NCAA,” Shoun said. “I am so grateful that we are given that opportunity to do it as well.”

The gratitude expressed by students and parents is evidence to Izzy and Knoche the HPP is living up to its design. The success of students like Ariana helps cement the HPP into the SSAE culture.

“Kudos to the staff at Springs Studio in understanding that life is a lot bigger than what’s happening in the classroom,” Izbonikov said. “Having that understanding and having them nurture an environment that supports everything the kids do: it’s just an amazing place to be.”

“At the end of all this, these kids are going to have to go to college, and they’re going to have to perform,” Knoche added. “We certainly want to make sure there’s a mastery component to what they do, but here’s the key: these kids are all so driven. We just have to give them the keys and let them go a lot of times.”SSAE student Ariana Leedy performs her floor routine

“It’s made me feel really loved. I'm glad they can be that involved with my gymnastics,” Ariana said. As Knoche explained, Ariana will plan for college while rising to the next level of competitive gymnastics as a student athlete at SSAE. She is already setting her sights on some recognizable and prestigious NCAA programs. 

“LSU, UCLA, Arkansas, Florida,” Ariana said. “Auburn.”

She knows she will have to fly high to reach her goals, but she also knows her team of family, coaches and teachers will make sure she sticks the landing.

David Nancarrow