JOPPA, Md. - Marleigh Skelton has dreams of ascending the tallest podium in Tokyo with a gold medal around her neck. She just has to graduate elementary school first.
The 6-year-old gymnastics prodigy has been vaulting, flipping, jumping and tumbling since she was just 18 months old. Coach Megan Blackburn saw something in the then-toddler Marleigh who was enrolled in a "Mommy and Me" gymnastics course at Harford Gymnastics.
"Coachable, big personality, she's so much fun to work with. She loves gymnastics," Blackburn said. "When you start that young it teaches you so much about your body. You know how to fall safely. You learn about proper nutrition. You're constantly getting exercise. You're with people who love the sport so when you come into the gym you just want to be here."
Marleigh spends three hours, three days a week in the gym practicing.
"I get to do different events that I really like," Marleigh said.
Her favorite event however, is the vault.
"I think it's the one that's the most fun for them because it's not a routine. They just get to run with all their heart," Dianne Skelton, Marleigh's mother said. "We never stopped with her because she loved doing it. She started at 18 months and has never stopped. She's gone to every session since then and just loves it."
This past year was Marleigh's first performing competitively against other girls in her age group. In a short period of time, she's already racked up an impressive collection of medals although she said she's never earned a perfect score for one of her events.
"It's just another motivator," Blackburn said.
Marleigh said her favorite gymnast is Gabrielle "Gabby" Douglas, who took home two gold medals from the 2012 Summer Olympics. Douglas' stunning performances in London made her an overnight household name stateside, but Marleigh likes her simply, "because she looks like me."
"That's really important to me," Calvin Skelton, Marleigh's father said. "I was really pleased when she took a liking to Gabby Douglas because it gives her someone she can identify with. She's someone she can see on television and go ‘I can see myself being that person one day.' The next part of it is, and I think everyone knows this about Gabby Douglas, she's a stellar human being and of course as a father of three daughters, that's what I want more than anything for my kids—just to be a fantastic human being."
Calvin is a high school basketball coach. Dianne is a former Division 1 college athlete. It's safe to say sports run in the Skelton family. (Pun intended)
"Sports to us are a platform to really learn a lot of life lessons," Calvin said. "Before they do anything … I always tell them, ‘work hard, have fun.' We keep everything in perspective. We try not to get too high on any success or too low on disappointment."
Marleigh's older sister MacKenzie, 9, is a swimmer. Her younger sister Macee is, "trying to figure out what she likes," Calvin said. "Right now her greatest activity is following her sisters around and doing what they do."
Although it appears like Macee prefers chasing her older sisters around. Possibly a future track star in the making.
"They bicker a little. Not a lot. They have a great relationship and they support each other," Calvin said.
On a quiet day at Harford Gymnastics, Marleigh—caked in gymnastics chalk powder and wearing a red leotard—demonstrates how she dismounts the balance beam and sticks the landing (see video). She's wrapping up a video-shoot with ABC2 anchor Jamie Costello, who she's worried about running into while practicing her flips for her floor exercise routine.
In the background, Dianne and Calvin watch. Dianne played both softball and field hockey at Towson University. She knows one day Marleigh will have to make the decision for herself about where gymnastics take her.
"I think you have to encourage them to keep trying," Dianne said. "Like this is what you've put your whole heart into. But at the same time, I know this isn't her future. Well, it could be. I know for myself playing, my parents never forced me to do it. It was something I loved."
In the meantime, Dianne said, "it's exciting for a mom to see your child work so hard and be so proud of themselves."
Harford Gymnastics Club, the facility where Marleigh practices and performs, has been around since February 1979. The club is run by Teresa DiMauro who takes great joy in seeing children learn the skill that took her and her late husband Frank Yapps to college.
"It's something that makes me feel extremely proud—teaching kids to set goals and strive for their dreams," DiMauro said. "Dreams are what fuel us in life. … Regardless of how far they go with this sport of gymnastics, even the minor accomplishments are huge. Like a kid
learning to do a cartwheel for the first time."
Harford Gymnastics is located at 701 Whitaker Mill Road, in Joppa, Md.