A new gymnastics legacy could soon be taking shape at the Hendricks Public School, where for the first time in history, a Minnesota State High School League gymnastics program is being offered in the district to area youth.
So far, eight young athletes are taking advantage of the opportunity this year, having committed to taking part in the gymnastics program, which was made possible through a first-time cooperative agreement between Hendricks Public School and Russell-Tyler-Ruthton Public School.
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Seventh-grader Hailey Gilbertson worked on her balance beam routine
"It's just such an awesome experience for our school, for our kids," head gymnastics coach Sherri Johnson said. "Everyone is excited."
Johnson said she is thrilled to be a part of the program. She anticipates that, much like other high school sports, gymnastics will offer a fun and competitive atmosphere for students. Along with Hendricks/RTR, 140 of the nearly 500 MSHSL schools will compete in gymnastics this season.
"It's such a small percentage that offer gymnastics," Johnson said. "So just to be able to do that and give kids in this area the opportunity is just fabulous."
The gymnasts will be known as the Grizzlies, since the decision was made to select a new mascot two years ago when Hendricks moved from a K-6 to a K-12 school.
"There was a committee that came up with mascots, but the student body ended up making the final decision," Johnson said.
More than 20 years ago, Hendricks students were known as Huskies. The new name represents a new start, Johnson said.
"I think they wanted everyone to feel welcome," she said. "Hendricks is a great school. Kids get such a great education here. To offer gymnastics just enhances that. I just hope people want to take advantage of that and we'll just build the program from here."
Freshmen Hailey Teske and Janessa Scotting, eighth-grader Brianna Bishop and seventh-graders Greta Johnson, Alexis Wendland, Ashley Borchert, Hailey Gilbertson and Maddie Ekema make up the 2012-13 Grizzly team.
"I knew we would have four for sure, but we ended up with eight athletes," Sherri Johnson said. "Four are from Hendricks and four are from RTR. It works out great, so we'll have a varsity squad and a JV squad. It's exciting."
Right from the start of the competitive season, which was a triangular on Dec. 4 in Madison, S.D., Johnson has been impressed.
"We were second (varsity and junior varsity), so it was a great start," she said. "We've got some talented athletes, so we have a good base to start with."
While fun, gymnastics is also a lot of hard work, Wendland and Ekema said. Along with Gilbertson, a newcomer to the sport, the RTR duo had determination in their eyes and chalk dusted across their muscular physiques on a recent Thursday afternoon as they prepared for their second competition of the season, a meet at Saint Peter this past weekend.
"It's really awesome," Wendland said of the program starting at Hendricks. "I like the opportunity because not many schools have it. If they didn't have it, then I'd probably have to go to Marshall or Pipestone for it."
Wendland said she has been involved in gymnastics since she was in third grade.
"I like that you can do tricks," she said.
Of the four apparatuses that female gymnasts compete on - floor, uneven bars, beam and vault - Wendland said she likes the bars and beam the best.
"I like bars because it's a really hard event and you have to have a lot of muscle and strength to do it," she said. "And beam, I like that you can do a lot of stuff on such a little platform."
Wendland said that falling off the 4-inch wide beam is part of process. When she does fall, she said, she just gets up and keeps going.
"The key is just staying focused and not thinking about other stuff around you," Wendland said.
Like Wendland, Ekema started attending Gold Medal Gymnastics, a club in Brookings, S.D., at an early age.
"I like that it's something to do for fun," Ekema said. "I was three when I started."
As she's gotten older, the skills have also gotten more difficult, Ekema said, but they haven't stopped her from mastering them.
"I think it gets a little harder, but you get more used to it," she said. "I like the floor the best. I like the tumbling."
Ekema and Wendland first met Johnson at Gold Medal Gymnastics, where Johnson also took her three daughters - Greta, Sophie and Sadie , so they were familiar with her knowledge and passion for the sport.
"I knew her before," Ekema said. "She was coaching at my other gym, in Brookings. She's good."
Johnson has been involved in gymnastics for over 25 years, including 10 years as a head coach in Mitchell, S.D., where her teams collected seven conference titles, eight region championships and two state runner-up titles, and three years as a coach in Marshall (from 2001 to 2003), where two of her athletes placed at the state gymnastic meet.
Johnson has also contributed to the sport by officiating high school gymnastics and coaching at Gold Medal Gymnastics. She was inducted into the South Dakota Gymnastics Coaches Hall of Fall in 2006.
"I love it," Johnson said. "There is so much to gymnastics. It takes a lot of athleticism, poise and grace."
While she feels blessed to have three daughters, Johnson said she always assumed she'd have boys, too. Had she had sons, Johnson said she would have encouraged them to participate in gymnastics as well.
"I had always planned, whether they be boys or girls, that my kids would be in gymnastics, not to be an Olympic gymnast, but because it gives them so much strength and flexibility and makes them a better athlete in whatever avenue they choose to go in," she said. "I think that's what I really like about gymnastics. And it's also great for young kids, for brain development. The turning and the spinning and all that is good for their mental well-being. So it's just a great sport."
Currently, Hendricks students have the opportunity to participate in gymnastics as well as basketball during the winter season, although RTR students have to choose between the sports because of the traveling involved. Johnson is thankful that the Grizzlies were able to come up with a full schedule with such short notice.
"Everything came together pretty quickly," she said. "Everybody was really accommodating to try and get schedules lined up, so we're blessed with a full schedule."
At this point, Hendricks/RTR is not in a designated conference, but Johnson is hoping to inquire about getting into the Southwest Conference.
"We'll see if that works," she said. "It would be a great fit. We're in the same section with all the SWC schools, plus there's a couple of extra schools."
The Grizzlies won't be able to have any home meets this year, Johnson said, because they do not have a full floor yet.
"Hopefully that's something we can get in the future," Johnson said. "At least we don't have to travel super far for most meets."
When she moved from Mitchell, Johnson had purchased some used equipment, which is now being used at the school, along with new equipment that was purchased recently.
"Equipment is probably what hinders most schools from starting gymnastics," she said. "You just don't hear about people adding gymnastics very often. You hear about schools dropping the program. So it's exciting to have this opportunity."
To foster more interest in gymnastics in the area, Johnson said she will likely continue teaching community education classes in the future.
"I did classes this summer and fall in Hendricks," she said. "It's too difficult right now because I'm the only coach for these guys. But I'm hoping that after Christmas we can get a schedule back out and get the young kids (3-year-olds and up) going and offer it to them."