Boys gymnastics season preview: Illinois runs contrary to national trend
In this March 13, 2010, photo, Highland Park-Deerfield co-op gymnastics coach Doug Foerch (left) jokes with his brother, Niles West gymnastics coach Steve Foerch during a meet. | Jon Cunningham~for Sun-Times Media
Look out for ...
Corey Snyder (So.)
As a freshman, Snyder overcame appendicitis before the start of the season to help Glenbrook North reach the state finals. He placed 13th in the all-around in 2012 and with a year behind him will be one of the top returning individuals in the state.
Austin Zimmer (Sr.)
An all-around qualifier at last year’s state tournament, Zimmer headlines a Glenbrook South team that has nine seniors. After finishing fifth in state in the parallel bars, Zimmer figures to be a force in the event again this year.
Dhwal Gheewala (Sr.)
Gheewala qualified for state in the pommel horse last year and Niles North coach Richard Meyer expects big things from the senior. “I think cracking top-20 in all-around is a good goal for him,” Meyer said.
Timmy La (Jr.)
La qualified for state in the pommel horse in 2012 as a sophomore. With Casey Mahoney-Muno having graduated, he’s one of the team’s top returning athletes.
Updated: April 8, 2013 6:43AM
As the boys gymnastics season begins this spring, there’s a dichotomy between the sport’s popularity nationally and in Illinois.
Only three state high school associations — those in Illinois, Louisiana and New York — sanction the sport, but other states offer the sport on a club level. This season is the last that the National Federation of High School Associations will write a rule book for the sport of boys gymnastics, further denting the sport’s relevance nationally. Later this month, the IHSA is meeting to determine what rules it will adopt moving forward.
In Illinois, 54 schools compete in boys gymnastics, which is more than in either New York or Louisiana.
Interviews with coaches, athletes and administrators involved in the sport in Illinois provided a window into the actual health of boys gymnastics. Their answers varied, painting on one hand a picture of a thriving sport, while on the other, a sport trying to maintain its relevance in a crowded athletic landscape.
Doug Foerch has coached boys gymnastics for almost three decades. He coached six state championship teams while at Mundelein in the 1980s and 90s. Foerch currently is the coach at both Deerfield and Highland Park and serves as an Illinois liaison to the NFHSA.
For 11 years, Deerfield and Highland Park had a co-op team, which is not uncommon in the sport. This year, each school has its own team, which Foerch said is due to the large number of athletes competing.
“Teams are bigger now than ever,” Foerch said. “The co-op team was huge. We need a few years for it to grow and then split.”
Foerch said that there are 27 gymnasts on both the Highland Park and Deerfield teams this season, adding “it’s not uncommon for a team to have 20.” He cited Maine South and Maine East as examples of schools that also split squads this year.
Gymnastics can be appealing for a high school athlete because previous experience isn’t required to enjoy success.
Foerch cited Highland Park gymnast Mark Gauger as an example. Gauger qualified for the state tournament in the parallel bars as a senior in 2005 despite taking up the sport as a sophomore.
“They don’t have the golden arm in baseball and this is a sport where they can come out and have a good time,” said Jon Wasik, a two-time all-around state champion at Mundelein in 1992-93 and now an assistant coach under Foerch. “A lot come from track, (or) wrestlers who have short, compact bodies. Those translate.”
While roster size is up at multiple schools that offer the sport, Foerch has noticed the total number of schools that offer boys gymnastics is lower in recent years.
“Although it’s gone down within our state, we’ve at least maintained,” Foerch said. “There are lots of positives to look at.”
Starting and maintaining a boys gymnastics program is costly, which is one of the main reasons for the small number of high schools that offer the sport.
Lyons won the girls gymnastics team championship in February. Its boys team finished fourth in the state in 2003. The school has space on campus for both its girls and boys teams to practice.
“We’re lucky to have open gyms year round,” Lyons athletic director John Grundke said. “Other schools have to go offsite.”
That approach incurs costs of its own as schools must pay rent to use another facility. Grundke said one of the big costs is purchasing the varied equipment necessary to compete in boys gymnastics.
“There are six different apparatuses you have to have,” Grundke said. “Buying a high bar can cost $2,500. A floor is $3,000. With pads, mats, and other (items), it can be $50,000.”
Grundke added that once the equipment is purchased, costs to maintain are “not terrible, as long as the governing body (NFHSA) doesn’t change the specifics of everything.” Grundke cited a recent rule change in the pommel horse that was designed to make the event safer. But it required buying a new piece of equipment that cost $2,500.
It’s these expenses athletic directors cite for why they don’t offer the sport.
“A lot of people say, ‘Why don’t you just get rid of it?’ ” Grundke said. “The amount of effort is a reason it is so well attended in Illinois (compared to other states). Those that are involved are passionate about it and deeply affected if we didn’t have it.”
Glenbrook North senior Nate Elfant is one of the athletes grateful for the sport’s presence in Illinois. Elfant first took up the sport when he was in first grade, for North Shore Gymnastics and Buffalo Grove Gymnastics Center. He said he quit before middle school, exhausted from the competitive climate at the club level.
“I stopped enjoying it. It was a chore and I ran out of gas,” Elfant said.
He played baseball and wrestled, but those sports didn’t take. Before his sophomore year, Elfant talked to Glenbrook North’s gymnastics coach, Ryan Dul. The Spartans’ program is one of the best in the state, with five top-eight state finishes over the past decade.
After his chat with Dul, Elfant decided to give the sport another try. He indicated that he hasn’t regretted it for a second, finishing 11th in the all-around at the state meet last year.
“It took four years to get it back, but there’s a deep connection. It’s something you love to do,” Elfant said. “You do it when you are younger and I guess you get the bug.”