An American Dream: Belarus immigrant Leon Bekker builds Michigan Academy of Gymnastics
A walk inside the 24,000-square-foot Michigan Academy of Gymnastics in Westland with new co-owner Leon Bekker reveals much about the aspirations and dreams of many of those inside.
It’s not just the landing mats that cover the floor like primary-colored building blocks, nor is it the little pony-tailed girls learning how to walk the balance beam, nor the boys’ teams practicing on the rings, their strength greater than their age, that solely define the space.
To be sure, all of those details are important pieces of what makes the Michigan Academy of Gymnastics a training center that has been at the heart of the gymnastics community in the Detroit area for decades.
But as important as what meets the eye is Bekker’s underlying philosophy that individualized teaching is critical to giving the 1,400 students who train at Westland and at the academy’s other two locations in Ann Arbor and Dearborn a good experience.
Describing himself as a teacher who coaches, Bekker says, “You cannot teach each child by the same book. You have to tweak your approach to the mindset of the child. My goal here is to teach the kids life lessons.”
Along the way, Bekker has learned some life lessons of his own.
Land Of Opportunities
In 1995, Bekker, a graduate of the Belarusian Institute of Physical Education and Sport and a wrestler for Belarus, a former Soviet Republic, was a 23-year-old teacher when he traveled from his hometown of Minsk to America to visit his cousin for what was supposed to be a short visit.
Bekker says his decision to stay in the United States was not motivated by discrimination toward Jews in Belarus, but, once he was in America, he discovered a way of life that, while it demanded hard work, was ripe with opportunities.
In fact, being Jewish was one reason Bekker didn’t have as much difficulty as some others did who wanted to leave his native country.
“It was a time when the government was allowing Russian Jews to travel or leave, so everyone wanted to be Jewish,” Bekker recalls. “Besides, I had an apartment, a car and a job, proof I had a reason to come back after my visit.”
But he hit it off so well with the young woman who was asked to show him around that four months later they were engaged and then married the next year.
“She didn’t speak any Russian and my English was not great, but we managed to figure it out,” Bekker says. “I’d had some English in Belarus so I took classes here and practiced while I worked three different jobs.”
Currently, Bekker lives in West Bloomfield with his wife, Nita Beurer-Bekker, and their two sons, Ari, 13, and Elan, 11. The family belongs to The Shul, also in West Bloomfield, where Ari recently celebrated his bar mitzvah.
His wife’s family welcomed their son-in-law into their homes and their hearts, inspiring him to pursue his passion for teaching physical education to children.
“Nita’s family accepted me immediately; I couldn’t have been any luckier,” Bekker says.
When a family member found an ad from the Michigan Academy of Gymnastics for an instructor, Bekker interviewed for the opening. He immediately hit it off with the gym’s owner, the late Doug Rowe, who hired him on the spot.
Rowe’s widow, Debbie, remembers when her husband met Bekker.
“He just walked in off the street one day and he and Doug started talking. They had the same love for teaching kids and a shared vision about what the gym needed to grow. Doug hired him immediately,” Debbie Rowe says, nearly a year after selling the gym to Bekker and his partners, coaches Cami and Stoytcho Gotcheva.
Cami Gotcheva, who was on the 1980 and ’84 Bulgarian Olympic gymnastics team, met Bekker shortly after he was hired by Doug Rowe.
Calling Bekker “a partner and a friend,” Gotcheva says, “Leon is always looking for new and creative ways to expand the business. We have a mutual respect for what the other is doing. He is much better than I am in reaching out to the kids in the community, whereas my focus is on training our high-level gymnasts.”
In perfect English, Bekker says, “My boss and I both believed that physical education was important, that it was not just play. We viewed it as a chance to give the kids an opportunity to succeed and overcome challenges they’ll face along the way.”
One of those kids who took the opportunity to excel as a gymnast was Bekker’s oldest son, Ari, who is ranked eighth nationally and second statewide in his age group.
While Bekker is not his son’s main coach, he is proud of the youngster’s determination and love for the sport.
“Ari has had a passion for gymnastics since he was 4 years old. He’s an honor student, plays the piano and violin, but still comes into the gym after school and on weekends, when he can practice eight hours a day.”
With a maturity that masks his age, Ari Bekker recognizes that much of what he does is a result of determination as well as possessing the necessary aptitude for gymnastics.
“To be a gymnast is not only a physical sport, but it is also a mental sport,” he says. “Sometimes your mind can overtake your ability and cause you to doubt yourself.”
When that happens, the young gymnast credits his dad’s advice and constant presence at the gym for motivating him to be a strong competitor.
“To have my dad in the gym is great,” Ari says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without him being there. Through all the rough times, he always helps me, with no regrets.”
Bekker recognizes and celebrates the differences between his two boys.
Elan Bekker is in his school’s gifted program where he pursues technology, music and a variety of sports.
“It’s a blessing they are so different because they don’t have to be competitive,” Bekker says. “But it’s interesting because they definitely need each other.”
Though Bekker says he never set out to own the gym, he admits that acquiring part ownership in the business has played an important role in shaping his version of the American dream.
“I’m living my dream for sure,” he says. “I’m blessed to be here. But if you don’t have goals, you won’t succeed. At the end of 2015, I took time to think about what I wanted to accomplish. If I can take one step forward it makes my year.”
Going forward, Bekker is developing a pilot program for the academy that will bring kids with disabilities into the gym. To that end, he has reached out to a friend who is an educator.
“I’m working with a preschool director who is also a speech pathologist to help us organize the program. I’m dedicated to bringing this into the gym,” Bekker says.
For him, success means having the chance to give the kids at the academy the opportunity to succeed in and out of the gym by building their self-esteem and confidence.
“Kids are like cars. If you make a dent, it can be permanent so you have to be very cautious,” he says. “The biggest reward is when you see them accomplish their goals. It’s like a million dollars in your pocket.”
By Linda Laderman | Contributing Writer; Photos by Brett Mountain