Parvin Peik may be nearing retirement age, but when she talks about gymnastics it’s easy to imagine her as a young athlete pounding hand-over-heel for panels of international judges.
“I am one of the luckiest people because I love what I do,” said Peik, seated behind the front desk of her gym, Payke’s Gymnastics Academy in Alhambra. “Gymnastics is my love life.” For Peik that love has spanned a career as a young international athlete in her native Iran to running one of the San Gabriel Valley’s most successful gymnastic programs.
Peik was born in Tehran during a relatively liberal era in the nation’s history when, unlike today, women were allowed to wear leotards, appear with their hair and legs uncovered in public, and participate in international competitions. When Peik was 10 years old, a coach visited her third-grade classroom. He noticed her tiny stature and recruited her. Peik’s talent for the sport was soon evident. After only five years of training, she advanced to the Iranian national team. By the time she was 16 she had traveled across the Middle East, Europe and Russia in international gymnastics competitions. Peik even earned third place in line to compete in the 1964 summer Olympics in Tokyo. But Iran ended up taking only one gymnast and a disappointed Peik was left behind.
Peik soon found another outlet for her love of the sport. While attending Aryamehr University (now Sharif University of Technology) in Tehran, she began to coach the Junior Olympic gymnastics team. Her love for both children and gymnastics proved a powerful combination. “I loved it, and they loved it,” said Peik.
Then in the late 1970s a new political attitude began to sweep through Iran. On Sept. 20, 1977, in an effort to escape the rising tension in her country and to finish her education, Peik immigrated to the United States. She left just two years before the Iranian Revolution, which overthrew the monarchy in favor of an Islamic republic.
Today, female gymnasts are banned from international competitions, including the Olympics. Gymnastics was “one of the sports that suffered a lot,” Peik said on the effects of the Iranian Revolution. “We still have women’s gymnastics, but just inside. The men cannot go and watch.”
Peik left Iran, but she brought her love of gymnastics and teaching with her. She settled in South Pasadena, where she married her best friend’s brother, Shamseddin Peik. The couple had a boy, Pejmann, and then a girl, Parrisa.
When her children were still very young, Peik enrolled them in gymnastics classes and began coaching again. In 1994, she opened her first gym in South Pasadena, and later expanded in 1998 with the opening of her Alhambra gym, giving them the name Payke, a phonetic spelling of her name in order to avoid confusion in pronunciation.
On a recent afternoon in the Alhambra gym, young girls walked two at a time across balance beams of varying heights, practicing their handstands, and boys lined up to run through routines on the still rings. A hovering mother hen, Peik oversaw it all. “In my gym, the teachers don’t scream,” said Peik. “They don’t push. They respect the students and work with love, lots of love.”
Even employees of Payke Gymnastics Academy are made to feel part of the family. “She’s like my mom,” said Sierra Cordova, who has been coaching girls at Payke for the past eight years. “She’s the nicest boss ever. She values and respects us.”
But she’s no pushover. “She’s up early, around seven o’clock,” said her son, Pejmann Peik, who occasionally helps out at the front desk. “And she works until we close. She’s working all day.” Peik’s dedication has produced results. For the last three years in a row, her boys’ team brought home state championship titles.
Yet, Peik was not spared, along with a number of local businesses, being hit hard by the recession. New students signing up for classes decreased, and parents of children who had been attending for months or even years lost their jobs and could no longer afford to pay for the classes.
“Our gym is struggling right now,” said Peik. But she has faced challenges before and stuck the landing, with her passion for gymnastics guiding her path. She doesn’t think this year will be any different. “I hope that 2010 will pick up and let me survive!”