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The long journey to the Olympics can start as early as 5 years old for gymnasts

Girls gymnastics is soaring in participation, but getting to an Olympic level is a very demanding journey

O'FALLON, Mo. — Getting to the Olympics is a dream come true, but it takes years of hard work, dedication, and a competitive spirit even at a very young age.

Some gymnasts can start competing at age five. Others see it as a path to college. Nonetheless, it takes a certain amount of skill at any level.

Take 8-year-old Avery Schellin. She hopes to one day be a Level 10 gymnast, the highest level in the USA Gymnastics Junior Olympics Program. She is currently on her way to Level 4 and hopes to compete this October. 

"I want to go to college [for gymnastics] and my goal is also to be a level 10," said Schellin. 

Schellin trains at GymQuarters Gymnastics in O'Fallon, Missouri. It's easy to see how successful the gym's programs are by looking at the dozens of award-winning gymnasts pictured on the entryway wall. Trophies and ribbons are spread across the gym. This is a place that is known to produce elite athletes, but it does more than that for many young women.

"It gives me a lot of confidence," said Schellin. "I get to make a lot of new friends, and it's really fun."

Some children start as young as 18 months, but Lisa Curran with GymQuarters says you can start at any age. 

"When you start younger, you can train your body and maintain flexibility and strength," said Curran.

Curran trains both Schellin and 15-year-old Grace Edney, who is now sort of an old pro at the gym. Edney has been training for about 9 years, and she says she's at GymQuarters about 20 hours a week, 4 hours each day during the school week.

"It's like a full-time job," she jokes.

Curran said it takes typically a minimum of two nights a week and up to 20 hours of practice to get to those higher competitive levels, girls who are hoping to become collegiate gymnasts.

"It can be an investment financially as well, but the life lesson learned in this sport is priceless," said Curran. "Time management, learning to focus, learning sportsmanship, learning how to deal with pressure in a healthy manner, experiencing defeat and learning how to move on from those moments and countless other lessons."

Both girls are feeling more excited about their sport with the Olympics. Both say they look up to each team member in their own special way. It's hard to find someone who doesn't idolize Simone Biles for her air sense and skills, but Edney said Suni Lee is also one of her favorites because of what she can do on the bars. 

"Their skills are so much more elite," said Edney. "It's just cool to watch."

Schellin said she is inspired by Mykayla Skinner. 

"She never gave up on her Olympic dreams," the 8-year-old said. 

Edney is currently a Level 9 gymnast and hopes to start getting the attention of college coaches as she approaches Level 10 status. She said these days that means also working social media to show off her skills, a modern-day twist to the college recruitment game. 

Edney already hopes to join Oklahoma or Louisiana State University's gymnastics program, and she believes GymQuarters has helped her make a path to achieve her dreams. 

"I think it's prepared me--not only physically, but mentally," said Edney. "It just helps you grow in the way of building friendships all the years. And then you have coaches that are by your side all the time. They're really supportive."