Spotting gymnast Ancilla Lucia Mari “Charlie” Manzano as a naturally gifted athlete was easy.
Hanging from a bar, Charlie managed to do the pullover, a move in which a gymnast flips over a horizontal rod. She was just four.
“The first time we saw her on the bars, we were surprised,” says Mark Mogol, one of Charlie’s coaches at Club Gymnastica. “Right away, she knew how to hang. Then she did the pullover. And we said, ‘Wow, this kid is good.’”
It was just a summer gymnastics class. Charlie’s parents signed her up, thinking nothing much of it, just an activity their only child might enjoy just like when she did ballet.
So when coaches gave the heads-up that their daughter may be a bundle of talent, it was all a surprise.
“There’s really no one into sports in the family,” Charlie’s mother, Noreen, says with a laugh. “I wondered where she got it from.”
Charlie admits having little memory of her first foray into the sport. Now 10, there’s still no telling though if this lithe 4-foot-4 package has already grasped how good she can be.
Months after her incredible debut in the 2016 Palarong Pambansa— where she won four gold medals in all—Charlie remains as the quiet but highly efficient student.
“From the start, we knew that Charlie can compete,” says Mogol. “But the problem that we had was she doesn’t talk much. When you talk to her, she just nods. But it turned out to be good because she just follows our instructions. Other gymnasts can say yes, but they can’t do it. With Charlie, it’s automatic. Once she nods, she gets it.”
Charlie, though, isn’t exactly shy.
After a recent club tournament, where Charlie bagged the all-around title, she looked happy hanging out with gymnast friends and checking her socials on her smart phone.
But ask her how the tournament was and Charlie will say, “It’s fun.”
Push more questions, like if she found any event difficult or if she got nervous, Charlie nods in each one.
“That’s how she is,” says Noreen. “When I tutor her at home, she listens and follows. Sometimes, she just keeps saying yes. So I tell her, ‘You have to show me that you know that.’ But after her test, it turns out okay. She knows.”
“It’s the same thing in the gym,” adds Noreen. “You’d think she didn’t absorb it. But in competition, you can see she actually understood it.”
A dentist by profession, Noreen gave up her career after getting pregnant with Charlie. She’s now a dedicated athlete’s mom, driving Charlie to training five times a week, accompanying her to local and international tournaments, while also making sure that she balances her sport and studies.
“I guess it’s all fun for her,” says Noreen. “But what’s important for us is she’s enjoying it. We ask her everytime in competition if it’s okay, if she wants to do this. If she says yes, then we go.”
Charlie, now a fifth grader at Miriam College, also excels in school as she has been a consistent recipient of the academic excellence award.
On the gym floor, she has hauled over 50 medals in four years of competition in local events and two international club tournaments in Singapore and Bangkok, where she again ruled as the individual all-around winner.
“She was six years old in her first competition,” says Mogol. “She competed against gymnasts who already won medals before. But she won the all-around right away, so we knew that this kid will get even better.”
Last April, just four months before she turned 10, Charlie emerged as an instant star in the 2016 Palaro in Legazpi City, Albay. Debuting on the biggest national stage for young athletes, Charlie made it all look easy as she picked up gold medals in the single bar, floor exercises and team event, on top of silvers in the balance beam and vault, to run away with the all-around title.
“At first, her mommy was having second thoughts if Charlie could really compete in the Palaro,” Mogol recalls. “But after seeing her win the overall title in the NCR (National Capital Region-Palaro) qualifiers, we knew she could do it. So we kept telling her mommy not to worry about Charlie.”
Noreen thinks the pressure of competing weighs more on her and husband Inky than on Charlie herself.
“I’m the one who gets stressed,” says Noreen. “I pray the novena. I really get nervous when she competes.”
But Charlie’s parents have already braced themselves for more of it.
“Our goal for her is to be a member of the Philippine team, to be one of the best gymnasts in the Philippines,” says Mogol. “She can be in the national pool by 14 or 15, be in the junior team.”
Save for her sparkly leotard, there’s no air about her that she’s a rising gymnast armed with remarkable flexibility.
Ask Charlie what motivates her and who she looks up to, she just shrugs.
“You like Bea Lucero, right?” Noreen offers.
Thirty years ago, Lucero inspired many young girls to do cartwheels and flips after a popular chocolate drink commercial made the cute, peppy gymnast the face of the sport.
But since then, there hasn’t been a local gymnast who captured the nation’s heart the way Lucero did.
Charlie’s coaches believes she can. Her family hopes she can. And Charlie may just do it, even if it’s in in her own quiet way.
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