Being in gymnastics has been part of Niki DiDonato’s life since she started taking classes when she was 5-years-old. She was active in competitive tumbling and gymnastics. She was a cheerleader in junior high school and all four years of high school.

When she was 18, DiDonato began coaching at The Company, a now closed dance and gymnastics studio that was located off Route 9 between Pekin and Tremont. She was there for two years. Then she taught tumbling and gymnastics at Pekin Park District for another 18 years. It made sense for her to make the leap and start her own gymnastics business.

She and co-owner and friend Vanessa Cox had discussed the idea of having their own business for a long time. They knew Todd Thompson was developing downtown Pekin and contacted him. He walked them through the steps to form a business plan.

They decided on their location, 215 Court St. in Pekin, and got to work remodeling the space. Over the years, the space has been a used furniture store with efficiency apartments above it, a Moose Lodge and a Social Security Administration office.

After all the blood, sweat and tears they put into renovations, Aerial Athletics was ready to open for business in June 2016. 

Although they had committed to this new business venture, they both had jobs they were not sure they should leave. DiDonato worked part-time at a veterinarian clinic and Cox worked full-time at a chiropractor’s office. 

A lot was on the line for the pair and DiDonato said if the interest from the community declined, she was not sure they would stay open. However, enrollment continues to increase, and they have had to add classes and instructors along the way. 

While DiDonato now works full-time at Aerial Athletics, Cox still works at a local chiropractor’s office. The arrangement is perfect for them. DiDonato said that Cox handles billing, social media and coaches a few times a week in the evenings.

“She keeps me organized,” said DiDonato. “Even though she’s not in the gym, we talk frequently during the day.”

DiDonato is in the gym from approximately 9:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. checking messages, returning phone calls and making sure everything is clean and ready for classes in the afternoon. She also spends that time running errands for the business. When she comes back around 4 p.m., she is opening for afternoon and evening classes. She typically leaves around 9 p.m.

“Wednesdays are my day off,” she said. “Anything I haven’t gotten to, (Cox) comes in and picks up where I left off.”  

Aerial Athletics offers gymnastics classes that uses the balance beam, uneven bars and vault trainer. They also offer tumbling, cheer and open gym times. DiDonato said she watches area school calendars and schedules specialty camps during holiday breaks. Two programs that have been very popular are ninja camp and cheer/stunt clinics. She said all programs are recreational at Aerial Athletics.

She said many of her students are involved in other sports. During their off-season, she gets boys who involved in hockey, baseball and football who come in to work on strength and conditioning.

The classes offered are from walking age through high school cheerleaders. She said she holds cheer/stunt clinics about two weeks prior to try-outs. Area schools have try-outs at different times of the year, and she tries to accommodate for that. 

“We have girls who come from schools other than Pekin schools,” DiDonato said. “So I check when they have try-outs, and we add clinics as we can fit them in. We’ve got girls from Rankin, Illini Bluffs, Spring Lake and Mason City who come for clinics along with PCHS (Pekin Community High School) kids. It gives the kids a chance to work together and get to know each other before try-outs.”

There are several open gym options based on age. It is safer to have children close in age at an open gym rather than have older ones and toddlers in the same space at the same time. 

Teeter Toddler Open Gym is a 45-minute session for children who are just starting to walk through 4 year olds. They get to work on spatial awareness, coordination, social skills and independence. There is a $5 fee, and it is limited to the first 14 students. This summer, Teeter Toddler Open Gym is offered from 9:30 to 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, from 4:15 to 5 p.m. Wednesday and from 5 to 5:45 p.m, Friday.

Open Gym is a 90-minute session and is open to children who are 5 years old and up. There is a $10 fee per student, and it is limited to the first 25 students. During the summer, Open Gym is offered from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Friday.

Aerial Athletics also offers an Adult Open Gym. DiDonato said this class is a “go at your own pace” open gym. There is a $10 fee per adult. This summer, the Adult Open Gym will be offered from 7 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday. She said she sees former students who are now adults, moms of tumblers and people who do Cross-Fit. 

Jeff Brooks, 45, of Pekin, has done Cross-Fit. He went to Aerial Athletics during Adult Open Gym and discovered health benefits.

“By last summer, my workouts had become too routine,” said Brooks. “I heard about Adult Open Gym at a Kiwanis meeting from a friend who had just tried it the night before, and I loved the idea. I had just been to a trampoline park and had a blast. I had no idea, though, about the amazing workout that I would get at the open gym. Not only that, but for the first time in decades, I was stretching for a purpose and that was the most important benefit for me. Years of sitting at a desk and nine years of just weightlifting had really tightened my ligaments up, causing me lower back pain. After about four weeks of open gym, my entire spine would roll and pop on its own. Gone was so much tension. I set some goals for myself for handstands, hand springs, and hopefully one day something like a round-off to back tuck. When they had to end Adult Open Gym for a time, I kind of panicked, but then found yoga classes at Parkside to continue my mobility training. Now I do both, and after an hour of yoga and an hour of open gym on Wednesdays, I am pretty wiped out but feeling great. I am doing this for fun, for stress relief, but also for my future senior citizen self. If I can improve my strength, flexibility, and balance, then I will be well prepared to enjoy more of my retirement 20-plus years from now.”

Gauging interest from the public has been a challenge for DiDonato, especially when Aerial Athletics first opened its doors. Now enrollment usually stays between 250 to 300 students per session and depends on the season. She said she has added an instructor or volunteer during sessions to accommodate her numbers. There are nine paid staff members and five volunteers.

One of those volunteers is 15-year-old PCHS cheerleader Giana Goudie. She goes in once a week to help during classes. 

“I’ve been tumbling with Niki for a while,” Goudie said. “So I thought I’d help teach other kids like she taught me.”

DiDonato said she appreciates her staff and their willingness to help. One of the big benefits of DiDonato owning her own business is the flexible schedule that she creates.

“I like to be my own boss and run my own programs,” she said. “I have the freedom to try different things and find ways to make it fun.”

She said staying organized is important, because she and Cox try to plan about two months in advance without changing classes to different days or times too much.

If interest stays high, she said she would like more space for the gym, but “that’s down the road.” For now, she is happy to be celebrating in June the anniversary of being in business.