LIVERMORE -- They flipped, they flew, they danced and leapt. They performed amazing acts of strength and balance.
About 180 gymnasts from around California converged in the Las Positas College gym over the weekend for the Region 1 Acrobatic Gymnastics Championships, leading up to the National Championships in Louisville, Ky., in July.
Never heard of acrobatic gymnastics? You're not alone. But coaches, athletes and parents are hoping someday it will be big enough to get a TV spot or even gain entry into the Olympics. The Sophia Cup world championship in Bulgaria in May drew just 244 athletes, but that doesn't mean people are not passionate about it.
"It doesn't matter if it's not an Olympic sport, I do it for fun," said Bryan Allen, 15, of San Jose, who competed Sunday and who took second place in the Sophia Cup with his partner, 17-year-old Brennan Atsatt of Santa Cruz.
Atsatt, like Allen, said he loves the sport as much for its athletic challenges as for the sense of community it engenders.
"The partner dynamic adds a whole new layer to gymnastics," Atsatt said. "It's less intense than artistic gymnastics where its just you competing against everyone else. I got burned out on that."
Try balancing another person -- who is doing a handstand on your hands, while your arms are extended over your head -- and then launching that¿ person into the air to do a double back flip and hopefully land on his feet. Then complete a dance routine. That would be something resembling acrobatic gymnastics, that has roots back to the 1930s Soviet Union.
It took off in the United States in the 1970s when competitions were held at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica.
Today, the sport is scored on how well two partners, or groups of three or four throw and catch their partners, how well they can balance in dance routines and form human pyramids, and combine all of them in an artistic musical routine.
Bob Meier, the Region 1 Acrobatic Gymnastics committee chairman who also owns Aerial Tumbling and AcroGymnastics in San Jose, said he's been in the sport since 1988 and the numbers have not grown all that much.
"We want to expand the sport, and last fall we founded the Acrobatics Gymnastics Foundation to do that," Meier said. "It's just a matter of getting it out there in the public eye."
For 12-year-old Ashley Porter, of Livermore, whose Livermore team took a first-place gold medal at the Sophia Cup and who was competing over the weekend, growing the sport is not that important.
She's more interested in being thrown in the air and doing a flip or two. She estimates she practices three or four hours a day, five days a week.
"And I like my partners, they're like my big sisters," she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Her "big sisters" are Haley Douglas, 18, of Tracy, and Nicole Potepa, 17, of Danville.
Potepa, on her way to Saint Mary's College in the fall, but who will continue on her current team and hopefully to the world championships in France with them next year, is glad to compete in a sport that is not that well known.
"In high school, so many people do football or basketball or baseball, but there are so few artistic gymnasts around and even fewer acrobatic gymnastics," Potepa said. "It's not what people expect in a sport."
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley and the Oakland school district. Contact him at 510-843-1408.