HANOVER COUNTY, Va. -- As a young man growing up in communist Romania, Viorel Popescu had little prospects for a future in athletics. Luckily, he happened to be good a gymnastics.
"Growing up in communism, you're set on a path and you're going to continue to go on that path," Popescu said.
He was good enough to make the Romanian national team and travel the world for competition. That included coming to the United States, where he eventually moved in 1999.
Living in America, Popescu found kids here had different attitudes and work ethics than Romanian children.
"I would talk to a child and they would just walk away," Popescu said. "They didn't look at me, they didn't stop because I was talking to them. Just complete disrespect. That was my biggest shock."
That also helped him weed out the athletes who were less than serious about improving and becoming good enough to compete at a national level.
He opened Above The Bar Gymnastics in Hanover County, Virginia, with the idea of introducing more kids to the sport he loved.
While welcoming children of all skill levels, Popescu keeps his eyes peeled for those who show an aptitude beyond just showing up every day.
Young gymnasts like Jake Apelt and Nelson Mokhtar.
"I pretty much tried every sport," Apelt said. "I started Mommy and Me classes, my parents signed me up when I was two or three and I've done it ever since."
While both Apelt and Mokhtar took up gymnastics at an age when they were somewhat unable to refuse their parents' suggestions, both have stayed with it because of that aptitude for which Popescu is always on alert.
"I've seen a lot of talented athletes that never achieve anything because they do not have the mental side of it," Popescu.
Mokhtar is ranked first in Virginia among 12-year-old gymnasts.
He was tops at the most recent regional event comprised of gymnasts from seven different states.
Apelt made it to nationals last year where he missed being named to the U.S. Junior National Team by just 0.3 of a point in the all-around competition.
Both young men have qualified for the elite division at Nationals which will be held in Oklahoma next month.
Having been there just last year, Apelt has a little more experience in handling what the rest of us might perceive as high-level pressure.
"For me, it's always been more pressure before I go to the meet," Apelt said. "Once I'm there, it kinda fades because you get into a competition mode."
"I just try to focus on what I'm doing and try and get through it and I try to not focus on distractions," Mokhtar added.
This is a big step for each athlete and also the next step toward where they would both like to be — representing the country on an international level.
"They're in the mix. That's a sure thing," Popescu said.
Mokhtar called the experience "exciting."
"I've been working the entire time. I've been doing gymnastics to get to this point and maybe even get past this point and get on the national team," Mokhtar said.
"I've never really thought too deeply about the Olympics because I don't want to go too far into the future but that would be pretty insane," Apelt said.
At nationals, only the top two in each age group from across the country are guaranteed spots on the U.S. Junior National Team.
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