Will this be the last year for IHSA boys gymnastics?

Glenbrook North athletic director John Catalano remembers a scene in the spring of 2004, several years into his tenure in the district.

Then an assistant athletic director at Glenbrook South, he helped host a boys gymnastics sectional. The Titans won.

"The kids were thrilled, the parents were beside themselves. As they're taking pictures, in walked our GBS girls badminton team. They had just come from their sectional, and they had won their sectional," Catalano recalled.

"So, two teams that don't get a whole lot of recognition. There aren't dozens and dozens and dozens of kids in those sports, it's a small group of kids, but they were just thrilled. The badminton parents were beside themselves that they won, and the boys gymnastics parents were, the kids were.

"And it just struck me that this stuff is super-important to these kids. And it should be, and I just hate to see something go away."

While badminton is on solid ground as an Illinois High School Association sport, boys gymnastics has a tenuous hold.

Why now?

IHSA policy states that for it to support a state series in a given sport or activity, 7% of member schools must enter a team.

There are 53 schools entered into this year's single-class state series for boys gymnastics, which began in 1952. That represents about 6.5% of the 813 member schools. Four more teams are needed to meet that threshold.

At its June 12 meeting, the IHSA's 12-member board will discuss and vote on the fate of boys gymnastics, which according to IHSA records since 1987 has never had more than 65 programs entered, in that 1987 season.

Debate (39 schools in 2022) and drama (54) are other activities in peril.

Last September, the IHSA board approved a policy change to add "more teeth to the policy," said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson.

Extra strength comes not from shifting percentages but from a change in language. Whereas under the former policy a sport or activity falling below the 10% threshold "will be reviewed by the board," now should a sport or activity fall below 7% of membership participation the policy states, "An existing state series will be deleted ...".

Anderson said if the board decides not to support boys gymnastics it most likely will take effect in the 2023-24 school year, though it could come at a future time.

He said gymnastics has been reviewed in the past and the board voted not to remove its state series. Archery and field hockey are sports that lost IHSA support in the early 1980s.

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

Anderson, who said the IHSA loses money offering boys gymnastics, said the issue relates to expense and personnel to support a state series, as well as member schools' interest in pursuing other sports or activities.

The board may decide resources should be directed elsewhere, he said. In April 2022 there were 173 schools, including Loyola and New Trier, that participated in the first state series of a new activity, esports. Girls flag football is gaining traction, as boys and girls lacrosse did before gaining IHSA sanctioning in 2017-18.

"Using IHSA resources, I think we have to be fair in offering the programming where schools have shown there's participation by their students. Not just boys gymnastics," Anderson said.

'That's their sport'

Catalano, whose coaching background is in wrestling, acknowledges boys gymnastics does not draw huge numbers. He believes, though, it is a critical outlet for boys to whom gymnastics is their only athletic endeavor. It also provides a sense of belonging in school culture.

"That's their sport," Catalano said.

He told the IHSA as much in a Feb. 6 virtual presentation.

"We talked about how many of the kids turn into gymnasts as freshman boys," Catalano said. "(Coaches) get them out of the hallways, they find them in another sport, and all of a sudden you're doing a pretty good job as a gymnast. It's not what you started out at. That's the kind of thing that high school athletics is all about, and we want to try to continue that."

In the Feb. 6 presentation, Catalano joined Fremd boys coach Jason Brandenburg, Deerfield coach Doug Foerch, Palatine Principal Tony Medina and Lake Park coach Frank Novakowski. Foerch, Novakowski and Brandenburg are officers in the Illinois High School Gymnastics Coaches Association, Brandenburg its president.

The Fremd coach - noting that more than half Palatine's 2022 state champion squad was Hispanic, "one of the best examples of the diversity that is at Palatine" - said policy change wasn't their goal.

"We're just asking for an extension of time to show growth and an agreement with the IHSA to work hand in hand with us and keep these opportunities available for our kids," Brandenburg said.

Measures could include reaching out to Illinois' 120 gymnastics clubs, cited in a proposal on the Save High School Gymnastics website. Club gymnasts, the proposal stated, could form a team with just three members and compete in virtual meets from their own club. Representing their own high school lacking a gymnastics squad, they also could enter the IHSA state series.

Broader ramifications

Considering the cost of apparatus and the gym space gymnastics requires, should the IHSA decide to end its support and individual schools and districts follow suit, there could be wider ramifications. "(It) would be detrimental for girls, too," Brandenburg said. "So in reality this would be a two-sport decision that would be made."

Brandenburg believes in "providing as many opportunities for our student-athletes as possible," he said. "I think that would be a route we could all agree on."

Catalano certainly does. He proposed a three-year period in which schools and the IHSGCA could provide the IHSA a plan for further growth in boys gymnastics.

"I understand that there hasn't been much growth in the sport," Catalano said, "but my hope is that they continue to do it, because these kids need a place to compete. That's really what it's about."

  Glenbrook North's Michael Glowacki turns toward the judge after competing on floor exercise during Tuesday's boys gymnastics meet in Glenview. Joe Lewnard/
  Glenbrook North's Ilan Guman competes on floor exercise during Tuesday's boys gymnastics meet in Glenview. Joe Lewnard/
Joe Lewnard/jlewnard@dailyherald.comGlenbrook South's Charlie Richards competes on pommel horse during Tuesday's boys gymnastics meet in Glenview. Glenbrook South won the dual meet with 125.10 points to Glenbrook North's 120.10.
  Glenbrook North's Michael Glowacki competes on pommel horse during Tuesday's boys gymnastics meet in Glenview. Joe Lewnard/
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