Concerns grow that high school gymnastics won't survive

  • Glenbard West's Anna Diab performs on the uneven bars during girls gymnastics sectional action.

      Glenbard West's Anna Diab performs on the uneven bars during girls gymnastics sectional action. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

  • Libertyville's Matthew Neuberger on the high bar at the 2019 state gymnastics finals.

      Libertyville's Matthew Neuberger on the high bar at the 2019 state gymnastics finals. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
By Chris Walker
Daily Herald correspondent
Updated 2/21/2020 12:03 PM

Is high school gymnastics in danger of becoming obsolete?

Some coaches and officials said they're concerned it could become a reality, but the Illinois High School Association said it's not looking to cut the sport, in either gender.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Those involved with the sport aren't so sure about that.

Cutbacks already are taking place as the technology screens and projection features showing replays of routines and scoring leaders will no longer be a part of the state experience at Palatine High School this weekend when the state girls meet is held.

Could this be the first step toward the elimination of the sport?

"When dealing with the IHSA, it's hard to tell if they're speaking the truth or if they're really saying what they mean," said Judy Harwood, president of the Illinois High School Girls Gymnastics Coaches Association. "I've heard a couple of different things. One person told me that her athletic director is on a committee that would have to do this (drop the sport) if they're going to get rid of gymnastics, and he said it'll be gone in two years."

IHSA executive director Craig Anderson said the sport is not in immediate danger.

"The message our board of directors asked our staff to convey at our town hall meetings in November was not that sports/activities below the threshold are in any immediate danger of being cut, but more so opening a dialogue on how we can increase participation in these sports that have fallen below the threshold," Anderson said. "So while it's hard to say what the long-term future for high school gymnastics in Illinois will be if the participation continues to drop, we do not foresee any significant changes, such as eliminating the sport, in the short term."

About the numbers

Chad Jaros, president of the Illinois High School Gymnastics Association, admitted he doesn't know what to expect, but he understands there is a participation-requirement policy in place that the IHSA has not adhered to.

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In October, Tracie Henry, assistant executive director for the IHSA, reached out to the Gymnastics Advisory Committee, IHSA official reps and coaches and reminded them that IHSA Policy 14 requires 10% of the IHSA membership to be involved in a sport for the state series to continue.

Despite girls gymnastics being at 9% in 2019 and boys being at 6%, Henry said that the IHSA decided to allow all programs under the 10% threshold of the policy to continue for another year.

Another factor is the lack of schools offering gymnastics south of Interstate 80. The Lincoln-Way schools, from the Frankfort area, and Andrew High School from Tinley Park, will be the southernmost schools participating at Palatine this weekend.

"From my perspective, from the numbers I've seen, the numbers have been pretty static the last 20 years," Jaros said. "The IHSA has a rule on the books that requires them to look at all sports that are under the participation thresholds every year, so there were a lot of years where they weren't doing that regularly.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I think a lot of this is coming out of procedural changes, but I'm not really sure what to expect or under what circumstances the IHSA might act."

Last spring, the IHSA went through a strategic-planning session that focused on what the next decade will bring for the IHSA and its membership. That makes a great deal of sense since there have been recent additions to IHSA's offerings, including boys and girls lacrosse just a few years ago and competitive dance in 2012.

"The strategic-planning process culminated with the group voting on the top goals for the IHSA moving forward," Anderson said. "One of those goals was to maintain the IHSA's financial stability so that we are in a position to not only maintain our current programs but also have the flexibility to be able to add in the future as new programs like esports emerge."

Not making money

Schools haven't necessarily helped themselves in this matter ... or have they?

Just this season, Downers Grove North and Downers Grove South transitioned into a co-op team and Sandburg and Stagg co-op joined forces with Andrew co-op resulting in the loss of two teams. But also in the last few years, Lake Zurich has started a new team as has Antioch/Lakes co-op.

The IHSA doesn't consider participation numbers by schools represented, but by teams. This winter there are 65 girls gymnastics teams, but 83 schools are represented on those teams while an additional 13 have individual competitors.

Technically, the participation number (96 schools) this year is closer to 12 percent, but the IHSA's policy isn't written to look at it that way.

Henry has requested feedback, searching for suggestions on how to increase team participation and less co-oping, how to decrease expenses and how to generate more interest from fans, students and alumni to purchase tickets not only at the state finals but throughout the entire state series.

The IHSGCA and IHSGGCA are in the process of working on proposals to share with the IHSA.

"There is a big-budget aspect in this whole thing, and if we can increase ticket sales that's going to make a meaningful impact on the budget," Jaros said.

For now, the consensus from the gymnastics community is to come out to Palatine in big numbers Friday and Saturday.

"The big thing the IHSA has talked about is how financially gymnastics doesn't draw a big crowd," said Palatine girls gymnastics coach Terry Theobald. "So we're trying to get people in the stands. We're asking for all the coaches to bring their teams to the meet and pack the stands and show the IHSA we're serious about gymnastics."

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