Boys gymnastics facing uncertain future as IHSA sport

Boys gymnastics could be making its last handstand.

After 70 years of boys high school gymnastics, this could be the final season of the sport. The dwindling number of schools that participate in the sport is the main reason that sport could go dormant in high schools after the state meet in May.

Last fall, the Illinois High School Association Board approved a change to Policy 14 to delete a state series or activity that does not have 7 percent of member schools participating with a full team.

That decision signaled a death blow to the sport. The Illinois Gymnastics Coaches Association, along with former gymnasts and current school principals, rallied immediately.

They had a meeting with the IHSA in February. The IHSA said that the 2023 season would be held, which it is now. But the IHSA also said that they will review the status of boys gymnastics this summer.

"It has been going back and forth a bit," Illinois High School Gymnastics Coaches Association President Jason Brandenburg said. "The last we heard is that they will talk about it in their June meeting. They haven't specifically elaborated more on that."

Brandenburg said he would like to have the IHSA to consider the effect it would have to the current and potential boy gymnasts.

"Now would not be the time to take opportunities away," Brandenburg said. "Kids need sports like gymnastics. It gives them a feeling of being a part of something and the ability to accomplish something as well."

In the new policy, 57 schools of the 817 IHSA member schools would need to have full teams competing.

The previous threshold was 10 percent. But that number included schools which send just individuals and full teams to represent them.

This year, 43 schools have entered the state series as a team. There have been nine other schools that will be sending individuals to the state series making 52 schools represented. That number is equal to the average number of schools that have competed in the last 10 years.

At one time, boys gymnastics was truly a statewide sport. It flourished downstate and the Chicago Public Schools.

But slowly the number of schools began to dwindle. CPS and downstate schools eliminated it, using the space and money for other things. That began boys gymnastics arriving at the situation where they are in at this moment.

In an interview with the Daily Herald, IHSA executive director Craig Anderson said that the lower number was adopted to add "more teeth to the policy."

Anderson also said that the IHSA has allowed boys gymnastics and other activities sponsored by the IHSA like debate and drama to continue in previous years despite the lower numbers as well.

"Maybe a lot of people would say, 'What's the harm to continuing it?'" Craig said. "And I think generally the board's taken a similar position. Some (sports and activities) have fallen below that 10% threshold for quite a while and the board has let them continue."

If eliminated, Craig said schools could still provide boys gymnastics, similar to those in the "emerging sports" classification. That classification would have the sport continue, but there would be no resources from the IHSA for a state series and state finals.

"I think a little bit has to do with time, money and personnel to navigate a season from our side at the IHSA, and the resources to do that with personnel. And seeing that we're finding interest in other sports, and we may be adding new things."

Illinois' most famous boys gymnast has also added his voice to help retain the sport.

Bart Connor, who won two gold medals in the 1984 Olympics and was a two-time state champion from Niles West in 1973 and 1974, said he has difficulty in understanding why the IHSA is looking to end the sport.

"It is heartbreaking," Connor said. "I was trying to understand what the parameters about this decision are. I know it is about participation numbers and such. But it is almost confusing to me. There has to be something else here because it doesn't cost much."

Connor said that the sport changed his life when he was young. He was too small to participate in any sport but wrestling, which didn't appeal to him. A gym teacher spotted him tumbling in class and convinced him to give the sport a try.

"These are young men that are a very diverse group," Connor said. "They may not be necessarily the right fit for baseball, basketball or football. But they are great young men who deserve a chance to participate in a full sports experience."

The IHSGCA has been instrumental in pushing for changes to reduce the overall costs to produce the state series.

In 1997, boys gymnastics eliminated all 16 regionals, thanks to a push from the IHSGCA. They added one sectional and still send eight teams to the state finals.

The IHSGCA and Hoffman Estates High School, which currently hosts the state finals, helped push a format change to the finals. That reduced the finals sessions from three to two, again saving money.

"We are just doing everything we can as an Association to make sure that the best decision for the kids and our sport gets made," Brandenburg said. "We are remaining hopeful that a decision will be made that would be a positive one for our sport and our athletes."

Moving boys gymnastics back to the fall, where it was years ago, could give the sport a huge boost.

Currently, fall has just nine team sports. It also does not have any activities at the state level that would need to be administered by the IHSA.

Competing in the fall could also help in getting more top boys gymnastics athletes competing at the high school level. Many of those club participants don't compete in the spring season because the club national finals are at the same time that the IHSA has their state finals.

Brandenburg says that the IHSGCA would support any or all changes to keep the sport alive.

"Of course, there are many moving parts," Brandenburg said. "But as a sport, we have shown we can be adaptable. We just want to work with the IHSA so we can keep our sport around and grow in the process."

- Dave Oberhelman contributed to this story

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