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High School Gymnastics Programs Dwindling

Maintaining a gymnastics program these days requires plenty of administrative flexibility

The state of high school gymnastics today, you could argue, is analogous to one of the sport's most challenging events, the uneven bars. In Washington, for example, schools in the southeastern part of the state last season boasted their highest girls' gymnastics participation numbers ever, and at least one new program began interscholastic competition. Meanwhile, Indiana schools struggle to find enough gymnasts to compete. Of the 392 member schools in the Indiana High School Athletic Association, only 92 offered gymnastics programs last year - and 10 of those fielded partial teams.

Why the disparity? "You don't see a lot of new programs starting up; what you see are schools hanging on to old programs," says Susan True, the staff liaison for the National Federation of State High School Associations' Boys and Girls Gymnastics Rules Committees. "But if a longtime coach leaves, schools often can't find another coach. You cannot have a gymnastics program with someone who just walks in and wants to be a coach."

Indeed, gymnastics - perhaps more than any other high school sport - requires its coaches to not only undergo rigorous safety certification training by USA Gymnastics (the sport's governing body in this country) but also be well-versed in the potential dangers inherent to and precise techniques required of all apparatus pieces. Plus, the expense of gymnastics (startup equipment costs for a new program can run $20,000 or more) compared to the number of participants a team is likely to field simply don't mesh. When it comes to Title IX compliance, many administrators argue, a school would be better off vaulting gymnastics and adding a less costly sport such as soccer or field hockey, which attract fewer liability problems and more participants.

Between 1977 and 2001, according to the NFHS, the number of high school female gymnasts in the United States fell by 75 percent, from an all-time high of 84,943 in 3,655 schools to a near all-time low of 21,034 in 1,548 schools. The numbers for boys are even more staggering, dropping almost 95 percent between 1971, when there were 40,530 participants at 1,881 schools, and 2001, when just 176 schools provided opportunities for 2,223 gymnasts. "Boys' gymnastics is in dire straits," True says. "We just made some rule changes, and we assume that this will be the last rule book we'll write for the boys."

But before critics quite literally write off interscholastic gymnastics, it's worth noting that some states with thriving programs aren't even included in the National Federation's participation figures because the sport is not sanctioned by all state associations.

"Those numbers really make it look like gymnastics is on the way out," says Todd Vesely, a gymnastics coach at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas, where the sport is not sanctioned by the University Interscholastic League. Vesely is also president of the National High School Gymnastics Coaches Association (which oversees the sport at the high school level) and vice president of the Texas High School Gymnastics Coaches Association. "Nationally, we had a steady decline for 10 years that is now leveling off and, in fact, there's a bit of growth," he continues. "But it's hard to sum up the big picture of high school gymnastics, because every single program is different. And to be honest, there are not a lot of athletic directors who have a gymnastics background or a working knowledge of the sport."

Despite the plethora of challenges facing gymnastics, school districts around the country are managing to make programs work. Granted, as some fold, a handful of displaced gymnasts join local USA Gymnastics-affiliated clubs. But that's a costly option, requiring gymnasts to pay for membership fees, travel expenses and other services typically provided for less (or free) by high school programs. Many gymnasts, unable to afford clubs, simply call it quits. On the other hand, some prefer to bypass active high school programs anyway, and compete individually and on club teams.

Schools are overcoming gymnast, facility and coaching shortages via co-op programs with other area schools, YMCAs and even clubs, which often provide practice facilities and coaches while allowing schools to compete under their own team names. Equipment manufacturers now offer less costly refurbished equipment or bargain-priced pieces previously used in regional or state tournament competition.

The problem in some states, says Robert Colarossi, president of Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics, is that gymnasts aren't allowed to participate in both interscholastic and club programs. In Indiana, one state where that's the case, the organization is attempting to strike an accord with the IHSAA to boost participation in the sport at both levels.

One of the states with the greatest participation in gymnastics in recent years is Texas - even though only about 80 of 1,300 or so schools offer gymnastics programs. Most state schools have more than two dozen gymnasts each on varsity and junior varsity squads, which practice and compete year-round, and Vesely estimates the female-to-male ratio in Texas is 3-to-2. "We're very proud of the fact that we have a growing boys' program," he says. "And we have managed to go through some of the most difficult financial periods in Texas history."

That said, the success of the sport hasn't been enough to convince the UIL to sanction gymnastics as an official activity, which would help boost the National Federation's participation numbers considerably. In 2001, the THSGCA presented its case to the UIL, only to be turned down by league officials who cited concerns about startup costs, insurance and injury rates, and a potential lack of qualified coaches and participating schools, according to Mark Cousins, the UIL's assistant athletic director. But Vesely's not giving up. "We'll be going back - probably this summer," he says. "I don't have any question that we will eventually be part of the UIL. It's just a question of when."

The key not only to getting Texas high school gymnastics sanctioned by the UIL but also to helping the sport "turn a corner nationally," as Vesely puts it, lies in generating greater interest and understanding of the sport.

While many of the state associations that sponsor boys' and girls' gymnastics still hold tournaments, the NHSGCA-sponsored National High School All Star Gymnastics Championships - an event held every May for 16 years running - allows top senior gymnasts culled from state events to compete on state teams. Boys' and girls' teams each average six to eight participants, and every year Vesely says the event moves closer toward incorporating teams from all 50 states.

Meanwhile, Vesely regularly fields phone calls from parents, athletic directors and school board members around the country inquiring about how to run a successful gymnastics program or save a fledgling one. "Let's face it, some communities might not want gymnastics," he says. "They might not want to make the long-term commitment. They might not be able to afford it. It's hard to argue with some of those points. But in communities where gymnastics can flourish, we're going to turn them around one program at a time."

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