COLUMBIA — Melinda Olson stares at the bar, rearranges the mat beneath it, exhales and jumps.
She reaches for the bar with both hands, grabs it and swings like a pendulum.
Then she takes a deep breath, lets go and flings her body into one final, fast spin, landing squarely on her feet.
Triumphant, Melinda throws her hands in the air and bows to the bar as if it were a well-matched opponent she has defeated.
Nearby, her coach smiles and nods, obviously pleased with the routine.
"She is a tough gymnast who works hard and is one of our younger ones," said Rodney Gust, who owns Elevate Gymnastics and Fitness where Melinda trains.
She is just 9 years old.
Before the gymnastics season began this fall, she completed all of the skills required for a Level Four gymnast. This is the first required competitive level in gymnastics, and it means Melinda will have her first chance to go to the state championships in March in Branson.
To qualify, each gymnast must score well in four different events — vault, bars, balance beam and floor routine.
Daughter's expensive dream
This is just the beginning of a long, expensive journey for the Olson family. The New Haven Elementary School third-grader started training when she was 4 years old. She now aspires to become an Olympic gymnast.
But her dream comes with a cost. For Melinda to compete this season, it will cost her family almost $4,500, including at least $1,600 in fees required to enter qualifying meets. That includes the entrance fees for five qualifying meets and the state competition as well as hotel costs, mileage and coaching fees.
Last month, Melinda and her mother, Joy Olson, created a Go-Fund-Me account with the goal of raising $1,800 to cover the fees. They had asked friends and family to contribute to the fund instead of buying Melinda gifts for her birthday on Aug. 23.
As of Tuesday, Melinda's Go-Fund-Me account had raised $625.
Olson has paid this year's meet fees with her credit card. Olson said that initially she did not know how she was going come up with the money this year. She has picked up housecleaning jobs to contribute, and her husband's business is still getting off the ground.
Robert Olson owns Quantum Wireless, a local Internet installation business, and CoMoFixIT, a computer and electronics repair business.
A Forbes magazine's study of what it takes to raise an Olympian estimated costs for an advanced-level gymnast at about $15,000 a year.
On top of the meet fees, the Olson family pays $300 a month for tuition to the gym, plus at least $500 for gear every year or so.
When Melinda was a Level Three and practicing at Flipz USA Gymnastics, a gym in east Columbia just south of Interstate 70, she spent only five hours a week at the gym.
Now that she is at a higher level, she spends 15 hours a week at Elevate Gymnastics and Fitness, which just about doubled the cost.
"We want her to have the best coaches, so we move (gyms)," her mother said.
Part of a competitive team
Elevate's owner Rodney Gust said that he has a great group of girls going to compete this year. Last year, Elevate took eight girls to the state championships. This year they are taking 23 competitors, and Melinda is the youngest.
On most weekdays, Melinda walks through the door 45 minutes after the school bus drops her off at home. She spends four hours going through her routines, gets home around 8 p.m., eats dinner and goes to bed. The next day, she does it again.
When it is not meet season — January, February and March — Wednesdays and weekends are days to catch up on homework and hang out with friends and family.
On Fridays, she attends Extended Educational Experience, known as Triple-E, an enriched education program for high-achieving students.
"I usually get home and do all of my homework really fast and then go to gymnastics," Melinda said about her daily schedule.
"It's never anybody else being like, 'Hey you need to be doing this,' or, 'You need to be doing that,'" her mother said. "She just likes to practice."
Finding home in Columbia
The family moved to Columbia in 2009 after Robert Olson, Melinda's dad, lost his Chrysler and Dodge dealership. Originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, they left when Melinda was 3 years old and her older sister, Shannon, was 11 years old.
"Before we left, we thought our future was completely planned out," Joy Olson said.
The dealership had been in Robert Olson's family for 30 years before Chrysler and Dodge declared bankruptcy.
"We thought we would live in that house and the girls would grow up and take over the business," she said. "We had no idea what we were going to do once we got out here."
They bought some land near Highway WW from Robert Olson's aunt, and in 2010 the family moved into a newly built home on Olivet Road.
"We needed to get away from what happened, and we had this opportunity to buy a nice piece of land right here, and that's what we did," she said.
When the family moved, gymnastics seemed to be the perfect thing to occupy their energetic daughter. Melinda started at The Little Gym when she was 4 years old.
"It was just giving her something to do at that point because I was a stay-at-home mom, and it was something to give her to do before kindergarten. And it wasn't very expensive," Joy Olson said.
Working to meet expenses
When Melinda started school, her dad was enrolled in real estate classes, and Melinda's mom was supporting the family by cleaning houses. Olson also recently turned to selling Perfectly Posh beauty supplies to supplement the family's income.
She said she does not mind helping her youngest succeed as long as her daughter keeps trying and loves what she is doing. At times, though, Olson said she does worry about her daughter's dream:
"As a mom, I bet that I have a bigger fear of failure for her than she does for herself. Because you know there is going to be a point where she is going to fall or something isn't going to go perfectly. And as a mom, you just want to fix everything."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.