When the state’s best gymnasts descend on Muncie for Saturday’s Gymnastics State Finals, one-fourth of the eight teams competing for a title will be from Columbus.
With top-five ranked programs in Columbus East and Columbus North, high school gymnastics has rarely been better in the city. Statewide, however, it’s another matter.
Only 77 of the IHSAA’s 409 member schools (18.8 percent) entered gymnastics teams in sectional competition this year. Several of those had only one or two gymnasts.
“It’s expensive to stay in gymnastics as a kid, and maybe they just find different avenues,” said Sandra Walter, an IHSAA assistant commissioner who oversees gymnastics. “Some schools grow out of gymnastics. A lot of schools can’t afford to support it. Financially, with the budget cuts we’ve seen over the past several years, they just can’t afford to offer it.”
North athletics director Jeff Hester said fielding a gymnastics team is expensive. Aside from equipment — he paid $6,000 to replace a 20-year-old carpet on the team’s spring floor — the school pays four judges $58 apiece for each home meet.
“It’s pretty costly per athlete just because of the equipment,” Hester said. “Equipment is not cheap. But we’ve made money on gymnastics this year. We’ve been able to cover our expenses with judges and everything like that.”
Schools from other parts of the state haven’t been so lucky. Marion County, home to several once-proud programs, had only two schools with full teams entered in the sectional.
“We are down,” Columbus East coach Nancy Kirshman said about state-wide gymnastics. “It’s hard because a lot of schools have dropped their programs, and they’re probably not going to bring them back because they can’t afford to put it back in. But right now, we’re OK. Nobody has said we’re in danger of dropping it.”
“We review the state of gymnastics every year,” Walter said. “Right now, we have several schools and multiple kids who are participating. We want to offer that ability to our kids, and right now, we do not have another sport that is looming to the point where it would come in and replace that female sport that right now is in the winter.”
The IHSAA offers 10 sports for boys and 10 sports for girls.
“You don’t add a sport in the fall or spring that would detract from our current offerings and pull kids from the other sports,” Walter said. “I don’t think our member schools want that. Right now, gymnastics in the winter is a good fit. We just need to keep our numbers where they are or increase them.”
“This is the only true female sport,” Kirshman said. “So they can’t drop it because of Title IX because there’s nothing to replace it at this point. So I think we’re pretty safe for a while.”
Walter said there’s been a misconception that the IHSAA wasn’t willing to work with gymnastics clubs, which can pair with a high school to offer a competition site, but that isn’t the case.
“With clubs, and if they have an interest and have kids who are interested, we will work with them to make it work,” Walter said. “If (schools) don’t have a program now, to purchase the equipment is awfully expensive and taxing and to the point where I don’t know that can happen.
“But we have some clubs in the area that our high schools have gravitated toward to work out,” she said. “We actually have high schools working out in the same club. As long as they have separate coaches within that club, it’s certainly permissible.”
That’s the situation here in Columbus, where North and East have traditionally inherited gymnasts trained at Jody’s Gymnastics Zone. The schools used to have some practices there until it was recently sold to Gary Stam, who just opened Victory Gymnastics Academy in a new location.
“The club programs are what train the kids and give them the beginning skills that allow for us to take it to new heights in high school,” North coach Sandy Freshour said. “It is truly the great preparation that they get from the local gymnastics club.
“I think as long as you have a great youth program, it works to the advantage of the high schools because their season really isn’t long enough to be able to take kids that really haven’t had any training,” she said.
Kirshman also praised Jody Tompkins, who ran Jody’s Gymnastics Zone.
“Columbus has always been a gymnastics town,” Kirshman said. “It was a very good boys gymnastics town way back when boys gymnastics had their time. Jody’s Gymnastics Zone is who needs to take credit for a lot of this because she has done a tremendous job with the majority of these young ladies.”