Originally created 09/27/03

Gymnast turns Web site into business



Jay Thornton's athletic career came close to looking like a "thrill of victory, agony of defeat" highlight reel.

The despair of barely missing the men's U.S. Olympic team in two attempts nearly drove the gymnast from the sport.

"Being a hometown boy from Augusta, I thought it was meant to be for me at the '96 Atlanta Games," the 29-year-old said. "After 2000 I didn't want anything to do with gymnastics."

A year of self-imposed exile followed, in which Mr. Thornton considered becoming a financial planner or going to medical school.

What gave him his second wind, though, wasn't the urge to compete again, but a plan to parlay his Web site on gymnastics, a hobby, into a business.

"After all these years it's like I have a Ph.D. in gymnastics," he said. "It was stupid to turn my back on the sport, and I figured maybe I could make a living out of it."

Today the revamped site - www.american-gymnast.com - serves as a virtual shopping mall of brand-name gymnastics equipment and apparel and as a meeting point in cyberspace for fans to follow the sport and discuss training tips.

Mr. Thornton and Olympic gymnast Steve McCain started the site in 1999 as an online subscription-based newsletter with an insider's look at competitions and any major happenings in the gymnastics world.

For now, Mr. McCain is a silent partner in the venture, as he spends most of his time training in Colorado Springs, Colo., for the Olympics next year.

Though a degree in economics from the University of Iowa comes in handy running the business, Mr. Thornton benefits a lot from his longtime ties to the gymnastic community.

"We fill these huge orders for colleges like Michigan, Berkeley, Temple and Stanford," he said. "I've known these coaches my whole gymnastics career."

His connections also helped when he recently clinched a deal with Adidas - a sponsor of the men's gymnastics team - to resell the company's stylish warmups, gym bags and sandals.

The site also sells equipment, from small hand grips to larger pommel horses, to customers in countries as far away as Israel and China.

The online business model means Mr. Thornton doesn't have to manage inventory or handle the shipping. That's taken care of by the manufacturer.

A portion of his sales are contributed to the Men's Intercollegiate Gymnastics Support Program.

Besides distributing other companies' products, Mr. Thornton also creates his own equipment, producing miniature parallel bars used for training, called "parallettes," and the portable version, "travellettes."

The equipment is built by Mr. Thornton's father-in-law and newest partner, Bert Moody, at a shop on Ellis Street.

Mr. Thornton says the equipment has been a hit with fitness centers and groups such as competitive cheerleaders looking to build upper body strength. This past year, sales grew 10 times from the year before.

Reach Matthew Mogul at (706) 823-3352 or matthew.mogul@augustachronicle.com.