UIC's dropping of gymnastics programs meets with tears, anger

There were tears.

There was anger and outrage.

Gymnasts at the University of Illinois-Chicago woke up to a flood of emotions on Friday morning.

That's when they were told by their coaches that their upcoming season, which begins in January, would be their last. In fact, it would be the last for the entire program. Ever.

UIC has decided to discontinue both its men's and women's gymnastics teams. The men celebrated their 70th year as a program last season, and even hosted the NCAA national championship in front of nearly 5,000 fans at the UIC Pavilion in May. Meanwhile, the women's program has been around since the 1970s.

Rising costs of funding collegiate athletics was a reason cited by UIC Chancellor Michael Amiridis for the decision.

Administrators broke the news to Charley Nelson, the men's head coach, and married couple Peter and Mary Jannsen, the women's co-head coaches, about a half-hour before the athletes were told.

“It was a punch to the gut, and out of the blue,” said Nelson, now in his 24th season at UIC. A graduate of Oak Park-River Forest High School, Nelson competed for the UIC gymnastics team as a rings specialist, graduated in 2001, spent the next 10 years at UIC as an assistant coach and the last 10 years there as the head coach.

“To have to see our athletes find out that something so important to them has been taken away was very, very difficult,” he said. “A lot of tears were shed. It was like a death. We are still shellshocked.”

So are those close to the program, including former gymnasts at UIC.

“I think I can speak for a lot of alums when I say that we are completely devastated,” said former UIC gymnast Jason Orna, a 1999 graduate who specialized on the rings and was teammates with Nelson.

Orna, who competed in high school at Lake Park in Roselle, is now the boys gymnastics coach at Leyden High School. He's also a boys coach at Midwest Elite Gymnastics Academy in Elgin, a club program.

“I have a son who is a gymnast at the club level and I would always bring him to meets at UIC to inspire him. A lot of the boys in my programs at school or at the club enjoyed hopping on the L and going down to watch meets at UIC. A lot of clubs from the Chicago area bussed kids in to celebrate the NCAA national championship that UIC just hosted in May. And now that's gone. You're just in disbelief.”

Adding to the stress of the situation for everyone involved is the ambiguity of it.

Nelson says that he and the Jannsens weren't given specific, concrete reasons as to why the programs had to be discontinued.

Cost was mentioned, but he says that from a cost perspective, the program is a low-roller.

The equipment that the programs share has already been paid for and some of it has been donated. Uniforms are paid for by donors.

Travel and coaches?

That is very likely covered, or mostly covered, by the tuition and fees that the gymnasts themselves pay the university.

Of the 25 gymnasts on the men's team, none are scholarship athletes and all pay full freight to attend UIC. Of the 16 female gymnasts, some get scholarships, but none of those scholarships are fully funded.

“All we kept hearing was the word ‘resources,'” Nelson said. “If you read between the lines, we think that might have something to do with the facility.”

The gymnastics teams practice in the university's physical education center on campus and used to stage their competitions there as well, until the area was resurfaced with an indoor turf field.

Competitions are now held at the UIC Pavilion, which has been a great venue, Nelson says, from a fan perspective, but it is more costly to stage the meets at the Pavilion than the meets that were previously held in the physical education center.

“This is our best guess, that the increase of cost of hosting home events (at the UIC Pavilion) is a reason behind this,” Nelson said. “Just to open the doors there is more expense and we have to rent equipment for our meets there as well.”

But typically, UIC hosts only 3 to 4 home meets a year. The rest of the teams' 9 to 10 events per season are on the road or at neutral sites.

Nelson believes that the athletic department might also be eying the space that the gymnastics program still uses in the physical education center for practices for other uses, such as expanding the training room and weight room.

The fact that gymnastics programs are disappearing all over the country (the UIC men's team is one of 16 men's programs in the entire country right now and there are 61 women's programs), makes the sport an easy mark for cost-cutting measures at any university.

“At one point, there were 250 men's college gymnastics teams in this country,” Nelson said. “As the opportunities are taken away, the fewer people there are to fight it or to be outraged.”

But at UIC, there is plenty of outrage.

Nelson is encouraged by the reaction he got from the gymnasts themselves, who are determined to help their coaches fight this decision. Former gymnasts and alums of the university are also coming out of the woodwork to voice their support.

“We are going to try to fight this,” Nelson said. “We (Nelson and the Janssens) were never given the opportunity (before the announcement) to come up with solutions to problems, to come up with alternatives so that we could try to save the program and deal with all of this creatively.

“It makes it easier to make a decision like this final when you keep it under wraps until you announce it. It makes it difficult for us as coaches to find those solutions and alternatives (on the fly). But we are going to try. Our athletes made it clear to us that they are not going to be bystanders. And we have a lot of alums reaching out to the chancellor and the athletic director.”

For his part, Orna penned a letter and sent it to the chancellor and athletic director and asked them to reverse the decision to drop the gymnastics programs.

He said the programs are “rich with history and have proudly served the university for many years both academically and athletically. “They have become a beacon for gymnastics in Illinois where many young gymnasts can go to catch great gymnastics and aspire to be the best.”

Orna says that his entire life has been shaped by his experience as a UIC gymnast.

He was inspired to become a teacher and coach in order to stay involved in gymnastics.

“Gymnastics has made me who I am today,” Orna said. “UIC was willing to give me a shot to prove myself as an athlete and that experience shaped me and molded me to continue to be a contributor in the sport. Gymnastics at UIC paved a path for me and I want to see other gymnasts around here continue to get that opportunity in a great program that is close to home.”

If it's up to Nelson, those opportunities at UIC won't stop. He says that he is coming up with alternatives to help relieve any financial stresses that the gymnastics programs might put on the university. And he'll be looking for ways to raise money for the program.

He is hoping donors will come out in droves to the UIC home meets, the first of which is Jan. 19 when the Flames host the 48th Windy City Invite, which involves UIC, Washington and most Big Ten schools.

“We're a Division I program, which means our athletes train to reach the top,” Nelson said. “We do that anyway, but this year, there will certainly be added motivation. If this is the end, we are going to go out strong.

“But no one wants this to be the end. While we try our hardest to compete with all of this on our minds, we will be trying to also come up with creative solutions to save both programs.”

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