High School Boys Gymnastics Fighting For Survival

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Last week, when the organization which governs high school sports in Massachusetts decided to stop sanctioning boys gymnastics, the spokesperson for the group explained it thusly: "It's a girl's sport. When was the last time you watched boys gymnastics?" Not surprisingly, that remark has served to inspire those hoping to reinstate the sport.

The first high-level reaction came from Olympian Aly Raisman, who became a local hero when she won gold on floor at the London Olympics. She took to Twitter under the hashtag #ridiculous to say, "There is absolutely no such thing as a 'girl sport.'

At a Sochi 2014 kick-off party in Boston this week, with that gold medal around her neck, Raisman accepted thanks from those who appreciated her taking a stand.

“Oh, no problem,” Raisman said. “I train with some boys at my gym, and I love them, they're so awesome. They love gymnastics, and I obviously love gymnastics, so I wish them all the best.

The move by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, or MIAA, was also criticized by other Olympians.  In 1984, former Massachusetts high school gymnast Tim Daggett clinched the first Team USA gold of the modern era with a perfect 10 on the high bars. Daggett told the Boston Globe that the decision was a "travesty." He wasn't alone.

Steve Sirois is the boys gymnastics coach at Andover High School, 25 miles north of Boston. He's been coaching there for 35 years.

“We're just looking for answers and boy, maybe with your help we can get it, and maybe we can keep this going,” Sirois said in a voicemail message. “I'm at a meet now and I would say there's, maybe 60 kids participating and 200 in the stands. So, what is going on?”

What's going on started over the summer, when the National Federation of State High School Associations voted to stop writing rules for boys gymnastics, a sport that was only offered at a true varsity level in four states. Becky Oakes is a director of sports for the NFHS. Coordinating the rewriting of the rules every two years was her job.

“It by far is the smallest sport that we have been writing rules for,” Oakes said. “Fewest number of states, few number of schools, fewest number of participants.”

The second least popular sport is water polo, with roughly 10 times the athletes. Oakes said she wasn't surprised to learn that opportunities for male gymnasts got even smaller with the decision to stop writing rules.

“Honestly we knew that that was a possibility,” Oakes said. “It was not the desired outcome.”

Paul Wetzel, the aforementioned MIAA spokesperson who suggested that gymnastics was a "girl’s sport," has apologized for his "unfortunate remarks". He says the state had other options for a rulebook, but the number of boys competing in gymnastics just didn't warrant a varsity program.

“At this time, this year, we only have seven schools out of 375 member schools that were…fielding, if you will, boys gymnastics teams,” Wetzel said.

“We've had fewer kids in the ‘80s, and it didn't bother them,” Steve Sirois, the coach at Andover High, countered. “We're doing fine.”

Sirois had gathered his team at a local gymnastics club for practice, among them was senior Josh Martin.

“Personally I don't think it should be about the number of guys,” Martin said.  “I mean if there were five guys in the entire town of Andover that were really dedicated, that should be enough.  As long as the kids are dedicated, and they have their heart set on what they're doing, that should be enough.”

There are a lot more than five guys interested in gymnastics in the area, as the group of elementary-aged boys who were doing "face jumps" on a trampoline proves. But, Andover assistant coach Wilson Man admits the sport has what he calls a "marketing issue" once boys become teens and have to put on a pair of tights to compete.

I mean let's face it, when you say tights, half the teenage boys, they run away.

Wilson Man

“I hate to say it,” Man said. “I mean let's face it, when you say tights, half the teenage boys, they run away. But you have the bad and the good. We look good. Gymnasts look good, I have to say.”

While female gymnasts often reach the pinnacle of the sport while they're still in school, male gymnastics requires extreme upper body strength that doesn't develop until guys get a bit older. That's why holding on to male athletes through the high school years is vital to Team USA—according to Steve Penny, President of USA Gymnastics.

“High school gymnastics has always been a part of the pathway,” Penny said. “Anytime a young man can represent his school and wear a letter, there's a sense of pride associated with that.”

Penny doesn't like to see school systems dropping the sport, and USA Gymnastics has offered to provide rules to any state, or school, that would like to keep competing. But, Penny said, maybe it's time to create a new pathway for high school gymnasts.

“The fact of the matter is the school systems haven't been able to keep up with the sport,” Penny said. “The schools are doing a woeful job of providing the right kind of expertise and opportunity for young men and women, at times, to continue in their sport.”

Competition supported by USA Gymnastics might be the best hope for athletes in Massachusetts. Despite the phone calls, letters to the editor, and pleas to reconsider, the MIAA says there's no plan to put the decision up for another vote.

This segment aired on February 9, 2013.

Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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