Constable: Former Fremd gymnasts, coach still all-around pals after half a century
In 1975, when Fremd High School hosted the Mid-Suburban League conference gymnastics meet, Fremd coach Frank Benesh was "hoping to clean up" with outstanding twins Doug and David Smidl leading the way for the freshmen/sophomore team. But David suffered an injury and needed back surgery.
Last weekend, the 73-year-old Benesh, who lives in Geneva, sat in the bleachers with the 63-year-old Smidl brothers, as Doug traveled from his home in Minneapolis and David made the trip from his home in Cincinnati, to watch Fremd host the MSL conference gymnastics meet. This time, each of them brought a recent surgery story.
"All three of us had rotator cuff surgery on our shoulders," David Smidl says. "We always do everything together."
The brothers moved to Palatine for the 1973-74 school year, just as Benesh moved from Indianapolis to teach PE and coach gymnastics at Fremd. All three left after the 1976-77 school year, with the Smidls moving on to compete at Iowa State University and Benesh seeing his career take him to Palatine, Hoffman Estates and Conant high schools.
"I've always considered them a part of my family, and their mom and dad made me feel like part of their family," says Benesh, who grew up in Northbrook and was a standout gymnast at Glenbrook North High School and Southern Illinois University.
As newcomers to Fremd, all three hit it off through their mutual love of gymnastics.
"We had two very good gymnasts in Dave and Doug. They were neck and neck," remembers Benesh, who worked overtime to help the brothers improve. "We would practice on our lunch hours."
The team practiced from the end of school until 6 p.m., and the Smidls would stay for another hour to hone their skills, Benesh says, explaining how the brothers pushed each other to get better. Their dad, Ward, who died in 2001, built them a ring tower in the backyard and a pommel horse in their basement.
"Those kids loved it as much as I did, and they were willing to put in the time," Benesh says.
"Coach taught me how to do a vault," says Doug, who needed that skill for an elite competition and remembers how Benesh found a way to make a long runway in the high school wrestling room. A back injury and a dislocated elbow cost David more than a year of competition and training, but both brothers competed on the state level, where Doug finished near the top in several events against stiff competition in a televised event.
"They washed the pommel horse, and it was like a greased pig. It was slippery," says Doug, who says a "bobble" at the end of his routine dropped him to second place in that event. For a couple of years, he finished just out of the running for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
"The golden age of gymnastics in Illinois was the 1960s and '70s," Benesh says. Niles West High School 1975 graduate Bart Conner, who made the Olympic team in 1976 and won both an individual gold medal in the parallel bars and a team gold at the 1984 Olympics, is still the most-accomplished male gymnast in American history.
"Doug and Dave would send me letters and the results of their meets in college," says Benesh, who saw them perform whenever they competed in the Chicago area. "I still have those."
When they came home from college, Benesh would let them practice wherever he was teaching.
"Frank is the guy who trained us and developed the foundation for our successes," says Doug, a vice president of sales for a company that makes telecommunication equipment. He and his wife, Alanna, have been married for 38 years and have two daughters, Ashley and Jennifer, a son, Greg, and four grandchildren.
"If it weren't for Coach Benesh, we wouldn't be where we are today," says David, who retired as a national manager for a division of Abbott in North Chicago. He and his wife of 40 years, Krista, have two daughters, Kate and Libby.
Benesh and his wife, Sally, have been married 50 years and have a daughter, Jennifer, two sons, Peter and Rob, and four grandkids. He and his son Peter, who played baseball at Benedictine University in Lisle, still coach baseball together.
Benesh and the Smidls talk by phone several times a year and meet in person whenever they can. At last weekend's gymnastics meet, current Fremd coach Jason Brandenburg introduced the three and had them wave to the crowd.
"It's fun," Doug says of the relationship between former athletes and their coach. "How many kids are still talking to their high school coach 50 years later?"