A 4-foot-10-inch ball of fury.
That’s how Lauren Rice would describe her mom.
“She’s tiny, but she’s fierce,” she said.
On a recent Monday, Cassie Rice walked around her Henderson gym with a commanding stature, instructing her gymnasts on proper form.
Kailin Chio, 11, perched herself on the balance beam and prepared for two backflips.
“Two legs,” Cassie Rice told her. “Straighten it back out.”
This Mother’s Day, she’ll watch six of her kids compete in the Junior Olympic National Championships in Cincinnati. None are related to her, but that’s how she thinks of her Gymcats team.
“I’m kind of mom to a lot of kids here,” she said. “There’s so much in forming kids’ brains as they grow that a coach, or a parent, has influence on.”
Cassie Rice, a 49-year-old mother of four, has owned Gymcats with her husband, Michael, since 1992.
Her students have included two-time National Champion and 2000 Olympian Tasha Schwikert, who led the 2003 World Championships team from the U.S. to a gold medal victory.
Gymcats has produced 30 graduating seniors who went on to college with full-ride gymnastics scholarships, including both Rice daughters.
Taylor Rice, 24, graduated in 2016 from Stanford University and now performs in Cirque du Soleil’s touring show “Corteo.”
And when Cassie Rice returns from Ohio, she’ll have three graduations to attend in 10 days. Her 22-year-old daughter, Lauren, will graduate from California State University, Sacramento, and her two adopted sons — Becca, 18, and Reagan, 19 — will graduate from high school.
Reagan scored a full-ride soccer scholarship to California Polytechnic State University. Becca, still recovering from a torn ACL, has an offer to join the same team as a walk-on player.
Though Cassie Rice’s children were born into gymnastics, they said their mom encouraged them to do the sport for themselves.
“This is for you,” she told them.
She also grew up in her mom’s gym, the first Gymcats, in Yonkers, New York. She met her husband through gymnastics at Oklahoma State University, worked for Bear Stearns on Wall Street, and got into coaching in Las Vegas after Michael got an acrobatic job with magicians Siegfried &Roy.
While Michael Rice was getting cast to perform in “Mystere,” the couple opened the gym.
“She’s the key to a lot of our success,” Michael Rice said. “She has this incredible ability to keep going, focusing on tasks at hand.”
Cassie Rice said her 75-year-old mom, Stacy Carrero, helped her get the business off the ground.
Carrero also owns the two Desert Gymcats locations in Las Vegas, where Cassie’s sister, Jessica, coaches.
“She wasn’t satisfied with being good. She wanted to be excellent,” Carrero said of Cassie. “After achieving success, she tried to improve on this success.”
Carrero recalled a time when Cassie was 14 and sustained a tibia injury, unable to train completely for six months. During that time, she trained her upper body on bars.
The following year, she was a national champion on bars.
“She took a bad situation and turned it into gold,” Carrero said.
Paying it forward
Michael Rice was shooting pictures at the M-Lisada orphanage in Kampala, Uganda, when he first saw the boys.
They were performing an act he was used to doing in “Mystere” — the three boys stacked on top of one another. From the middle, Becca balanced his best friend, Reagan, above his head.
Michael Rice sent a picture of them to his wife.
“What would you think if we adopted a couple kids?” he asked.
She didn’t hesitate.
The boys arrived in 2010, nearly a week before Christmas.
“It was kind of miraculous. We were lucky,” Cassie Rice said.
They were small for 11, weighing about 70 pounds, and fit right under her arm. She was determined not to treat them differently from her other kids.
The family still sponsors children in Uganda, while also volunteering in the community and offering classes for at-risk youth at their gym.
Because Becca rarely went to school in Uganda, he didn’t know how to read when he came to the United States. Cassie Rice read with him every day, recited “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” by Dr. Seuss and helped him sound out the words.
Reagan and Becca, who also were coordinated at gymnastics, chose to dedicate themselves to soccer, a sport they had learned playing barefoot with balls made out of plastic bags.
Last Sunday was Becca’s last game for the Heat FC Soccer Club. Before he played, his adoptive mother taped up a gash on one side of his swollen right ankle.
As he shimmied across the field, Becca stuck his right leg up, balancing and punting the ball toward the goal.
“Go, Beccs!” Cassie Rice cheered from her seat next to her husband under their umbrella. She then joked to her husband, “That was an acrobatic gymnastic move.”
Becca, No. 8, moved around, his dreadlocks held back by a black-and-white bandanna.
He said he still remembers the first time he saw his American mom: when she looked at him and told him he had a sweet smile.
“She helps the little people,” Becca said. “I consider them my parents,” Becca said. They’re loving, you get into their house, and they love you.”