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Lombard teen, Willowbrook gymnast mentors boy with autism

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013 10:47 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, July 25, 2014 4:50 a.m. CDT

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Jack Caliento of Elmhurst takes off toward the springboard floor as soon as the 6-year-old blond boy sets foot in the gymnastics gym.

“I have so many kids that come and I can tell that he loves it,” said his coach, 16-year-old Keawe Winstead, of Lombard.

The pair weave between children doing across-the-floor exercises and make their way back to the rings – a favorite of Jack’s. A wide smile flashes across Jack’s face as he grabs the rings above his head and lunges forward. He lets out an excited yell as he swings back and forth, and a matching grin spreads across Winstead’s face.

“Jack doesn’t just take to somebody right away,” said Jack’s mother, Kate Caliento.

The casual observer may not even notice in the gym, but Jack has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism. He and his twin sister, Claire, have been taking gymnastics at the Elmhurst Park District’s Joanne Wagner Community Center on and off since they were 2. Their mom likes that even though they’re separated by gender, Jack has no trouble keeping up with Claire or the other gymnasts.

“He can see his sister, and he’s doing just what she’s doing, but he’s with the boys,” Kate Caliento said. “He can do whatever his peers can do.”

Jack is nonverbal, but he’s just as active as any other 6-year-old. He loves to follow his sister’s lead. The twins also enjoy horseback riding. While Kate Caliento believes Jack mostly wanted to try it because Claire was so interested, he’s now taken to riding as well. Jack also loves to swim.

“He’s a water bug,” Kate Caliento said.

After Jack’s initial diagnosis when he was two and a half years old, he took a break from gymnastics. When his mother found out the park district would designate Jack a coach such as Winstead, she was happy to see Jack back in the gym. Winstead began gymnastics as a 4-year-old. Now, he’s starting his third year on the Willowbrook High School varsity boys gymnastics team as a junior. As an advanced competitor, he wanted to experience the sport from a different perspective.

“Combining [training and coaching] kind of helps me understand what I’m doing and how to see it from what my coach is telling me to do,” Winstead said.

Willowbrook gymnastics coach and Elmhurst Park District gymnastics program manager Annette Nocek was continually impressed with the patience Winstead had with Jack. She remembers watching Winstead chase after Jack across the gym occasionally and worrying the teen might get frustrated, but instead Winstead would flash her a smile.

“I can’t get frustrated with him,” said Winstead. “He’s a lot of fun no matter what it is.”

A seasoned gymnast, Winstead is no stranger to hard work. Although he’s excelled at the high school level and is currently seeking scholarships for college, Winstead said the sport didn’t come easy to him. He continues to work year round on his skills.

Nocek felt proud to see a teen like Winstead not only succeeding at his own goals, but giving his time and expertise to teach someone else.

“I think that Jack spends so much time with female assistants that it’s so nice to have a young male to assist him and support him and have fun with him,” Kate Caliento said.

She, Jack and Claire are excited to watch Winstead compete in his favorite event, the pommel horse, during the spring high school season.

Winstead reflects Jack’s excitement when the boy, 10 years his junior, swings from a bar, and the 6-year-old’s diagnosis seems to be the last thought in either of their minds.

“[I] treat him just like everyone else because he’s not different from any other kid.” said Winstead. “Everyone likes to have fun.”

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