Sticking the landing

After pandemic challenges, Dream Big Gymnastics owner finds continued rewards, new success


During the pandemic, Shannon Cornicelli, owner of Dream Big Gymnastics in Cranston, rediscovered what makes her happy – coaching.

After a life of gymnastics, including state championship titles in high school, an Eastern College Athletic Conference champion award in bars in 2003, and coaching at her alma mater Rhode Island College, Cornicelli stepped away from coaching at her gym four years ago. Now, she’s back teaching – and more excited than ever about her sport.

“Since coronavirus, the best thing has been that I’m out of bed, I’m coaching, I have my passion back. I can now dream about the future in a positive way,” Cornicelli said. “[I’m] going home with all this renewed energy of all the accomplishments you made, or your kids made, throughout the day. I’m getting so excited and posting them all over social media, and making a big deal about all this happiness that’s back in the gym again.”

Cornicelli embarked on “the biggest undertaking of my entire life” in 2008, when she opened the doors of Dream Big Gymnastics on Comstock Parkway in Western Cranston. She also started Dream Big Athletic, a brand that produces and designs leotards, warm-up suits and other gymnastics apparel.

She started her gymnastics journey at age 3 in California, influenced by her mother, who was a gymnast, and her grandmother, who was a dancer.

She didn’t just stick to gymnastics, though. Growing up, Cornicelli played baseball, softball, skiing and field hockey. She also pursued lacrosse and rugby during her time at RIC, while simultaneously maintaining her national rank as a gymnast.

Her gym closed in March 2020 and reopened again in July 2020, in accordance with the state’s COVID-19 guidelines. During the closure, Cornicelli created virtual Zoom classes for her students to stay engaged with the sport. She also developed the UNITY Collection, which designs tank-top leotards for other gyms throughout the country. To help offset the decline in income during the pandemic, each gym receives 25 percent of the profits.

Despite the challenges – Cornicelli contemplated bankruptcy in the early days of COVID-19 – Dream Big Gymnastics has prevailed. Enrollment numbers are at an all-time high.

“Our coaching staff is the strongest it’s ever been,” Cornicelli said. “It’s actually better than ever. We are on such an up … especially this month in new registrations. At the front desk, the phone doesn’t stop ringing. It’s been awesome. It’s been heartwarming to have the support of our community.”

While managing her growing business, Cornicelli balances the life of being a mother to two boys, 10-year-old Ashton and 13-year-old Dylan. Like Cornicelli when she was younger, her sons pursue multiple sports such as basketball, wrestling, cross country, football and baseball, although they are not gymnasts. She pushes them to be the best they can be and achieve their goals as athletes, but finds it challenging to organize rides to practices and games while maintaining the gym.

“It’s very stressful,” Cornicelli said. “I want to be there for my kids, but I need to make a living. It has a lot of challenges. I want to be there for them, but these girls need me too.”

In adapting her gym to the pandemic world, Cornicelli has also begun to shift gymnastic meets to a virtual format. In February, the Cranston gym hosted its first Zoom invitational with 18 other gyms from throughout the country, as well as one gym from Germany. Judges also joined the meet virtually and gave scores after watching the gymnasts’ live-streamed performances. Cornicelli’s students, the judges and other gyms are pleased with the format, inspiring Dream Big Gymnastics to schedule more virtual meets in the coming months with themes like Mardi Gras and “Fun in the Sun.”

Tanya Forti, general manager of Dream Big Gymnastics, is working closely with her longtime friend Cornicelli to develop virtual meets and regulate the gym’s other COVID-19 safety protocols. Before anyone enters the facility, Forti conducts required temperature checks and makes sure gymnasts and guests are wearing masks.

While spectators are limited, Forti is happy to see the young gymnasts back on the beams, bars and mats.

“It’s fantastic and refreshing to be able to interact with people and see our kids and watch them in the gym and see how happy they are interacting with their peers and doing what they love,” she said.

Although the pandemic presented many challenges and required pivots, it’s the gym’s namesake – “dream big” – that Cornicelli hopes her students will remember during this time.

“We all, as coaches, teach life lessons,” she said.  “Hard work pays off. No guts, no glory. Stuff like that is not just for their score, but also for their future as strong women.”


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