Friday, April 22, 2005

Checking Back In with the Niles West Gymnastics Team

All I've wanted to do over the last month is get back to working with the guys on the gymnastics team. So I'm back for a final week as they enter the homestretch of their season.

  Alex's textbook cross
The progress they've made in the month between my trips has been impressive. Last Thursday they showed a lot of promise. Saturday they continued to improve. And last night's meet things really started coming together.

They reached a team score of 130.7 - their season high and a significant milestone. Coach said that in the last ten years the team has maybe reached 130 once or twice, but Adrian's team and my team ('94 and '95) were the last two that he could recall hitting that mark.

  Marco's 9.0 Tsukahara
In order to reach 130 the top three scores (five compete, three count) on each of the six events must average a 7.2 or better. That's quite a feat for gymnasts who walk into the gym as freshman having never done gymnastics. And just five or six weeks ago this team was scoring a paltry 113. Remarkable. Sometimes this mark is reached thanks to some funny judging - high scores that the kids don't exactly deserve. But the scores last night were pretty much in line. They legitimately earned their 130.

Adrian and I disagree on this, but I'm pretty sure that our teams each only reached 130 once. And I'm not convinced that we deserved the scores we got in those meets. I said after my first day with this team that they could beat our '94 and '95 squads. It would be a great dogfight, but if it were possible to go head-to-head, I do think these guys just might edge us out. However, I am pretty sure that the Keith/Banzai back then would have intimidated the hell out of them! And I'm not sure if Banzai '95 was a better asset than Banzai '94 on Adrian's team. Could be the difference-maker!

Unfortunately the outlook isn't all rosy. The state-wide public high school league has shrunken from around 55 teams in my day down to 42. And it's getting weaker year by year. Illinois is one of only a handful of states that even have a public high school gymnastics league. Coach said that at least four teams that are competing this year will be closing their doors forever at the end of this season. In his words, "that may be the final straw for boys' gymnastics." He shook his head, paused for a second, then added, "I think we've only got about four more years before we get shut down too."

This was devastating news. Maybe I just caught coach at a pessimistic moment. But it's devastating nonetheless. Especially considering the success and vitality of the program this year. They're experiencing a resurgence that has been missing for a decade. Last night the freshman team, led by coach's son, finished the season undefeated. The JV guys are progressing along nicely and are on the verge of cracking the Varsity lineup. The Varsity guys are finally tapping into their potential and bringing it all together. The kids at all levels are learning to succeed. They are pursuing excellence.

These kids will take these experiences with them wherever they go, for the rest of their lives. They won't remember their chemistry classes for crap - do you remember your alkanes, alkenes, and alkynes? - but they'll remember what they learned in the gym. They'll remember what they learned about themselves. And most importantly they'll remember how to succeed. This is what the sport is for. This is what it excels at. This is why it exists.

How can such a good thing be on its deathbed?


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