The 21st Stars and Stripes Coed Invitational Gymnastics Meet is being held at the Bayfront Convention Center.  As the name suggests, it's a patriotic event.  The colors red, white, and blue are everywhere.  It's hard to believe the gymnastics meet was once going to be named after a rodent.

The idea for a big gymnastics meet in Erie was first discussed on September 10, 2001.  According to Meet Director Doug Pershun, it was decided to hold the event that following February on Groundhog Day weekend.

"We were looking for a clever theme,” he said.  “A lot of these competitions are hosted around a theme.  OK.  What's significant about that?  It's Groundhog Day!"

However, the day after that September 10 planning session was one of the darkest days in our country's history. The plans for the gymnastics meet changed dramatically.

"It was supposed to be the Groundhog Day Invitational.  That's what all the invitations went out as.  But, we felt it was kind of silly with everything that was going on back then to celebrate that. We decided to dedicate it to the troops, the fire, the police, and the rescue workers,” said Pershun.

The name was changed to the Stars and Stripes Invitational and for the following 21 years the heroism of our nation's  military and first responders has been honored at the meet.  Organizers have donated over $100,000 to local military, police, fire, and rescue organizations over that time.  Those who serve always have free admission to watch the competition. 

"So, there's no doubt that these are our local heroes and they're here throughout the weekend helping to give awards out to our athletes,” says Pershun.  

It's a wonderful theme.  Pershun says no one ever thinks twice about what it would be like to have a picture of a big groundhog decorating the competition area instead of Old Glory.

"I don't think it would have caught on with the popularity. People like the theme.  People like the causes that we celebrate."

The competition began this morning and runs through Monday.  2100 athletes are competing and the event brings in $1 million each year to Erie's economy.