‘The word has gotten out’: Inside the rise of girls gymnastics in Georgia

“If you coach one sport, and if you can commit to learning, you can adapt and learn a new sport,” Regan said. “When I started (with gymnastics), I knew a little, but not a lot – and now I know a lot, but that’s all just (from) committing to learning.”

Regan soon had another problem on his hands. The school couldn’t cover all the costs of the team’s equipment, forcing the gymnasts to pay for their own leotards. More than that, the school wouldn’t pay for a potential replacement coach for the team, putting additional pressure on Regan’s shoulders.

“The hard part is, if I walk away, there is no program,” Regan said. “Because no one’s gonna do it for free.”

Regan still is coaching the team on an unpaid basis, and the gymnasts still are paying for their own leotards. The issue of funding is a common barrier for many new gymnastics teams. Terri Denson, a gymnastics coach at Ola High School, speculated that starting a program could cost around $20,000 per school, among equipment, practice space and other expenses.

Ola and other schools in Henry County share a gym for practice time and meets, though Denson said that many schools aren’t quite that lucky.

“There are a lot of counties across the state that don’t want to deal with the danger of the sport or the cost of it,” Denson said. “So these programs that are new, that have joined in the last three or four or five years, they’re not programs that have high school equipment in a high school building. Most of these programs are having to train in a private gym.”

Credit: Photo courtesy of Terri Denson

Credit: Photo courtesy of Terri Denson

So if there is a shortage of coaches and a lack of support from administration, then where is the push for gymnastics coming from? The answer isn’t simple, according to Denson.

She said that one source of the gymnastics fervor is increased media coverage of college and Olympic gymnastics. The University of Georgia gymnastics team averaged 9,515 fans in attendance at each event during the 2022 season, good for the fourth-highest mark in the nation.

A year later, LSU recorded a program-record average of 12,075 fans in attendance per meet. That marked LSU’s sixth consecutive season with over 10,000 fans per event, and a major reason why athletes such as Olivia Dunne have risen to such incredible heights of stardom. Denson said that level of attention was encouraging more and more high school students to take up the sport.

“The publicity that college gymnastics is getting, like on ‘Friday Night Heights’ on the SEC Network, I feel like more people are seeing the sport and how elegant and athletic it is, and how it’s so unique,” Denson said.

Adding to the trend, Sanders says, is an influx of gymnasts arriving from club gymnastics to compete at the high school level.

Dianna Nulty, the gymnastics coordinator for Cobb County Parks, said she had seen similar patterns of her club gymnasts engaging in high school programs.

“The word has gotten out,” Nulty said. “All of a sudden, those kids that are on club teams will say, ‘Hey, we’ve got three or four kids all of a sudden that are at a club level. We can compete now for our high school.’”

Sanders said that when the North Oconee program was starting out, it featured a number of ‘retired’ gymnasts who had been burnt out of gymnastics at the club level. In joining their high school team, Sanders said that they had rekindled their passion.

One such athlete is sophomore Emory Shepherd. She took up club gymnastics at the age of 5, though she stopped in the eighth grade because of a combination of injuries and mental pressure, both from her coaches and herself.

As a high school freshman, she discovered the school had a gymnastics team and – despite thinking twice about participating – joined the team and said it has helped her to fall in love with the sport again. A major factor in that is the difference in the competitive atmospheres of club gymnastics and high school gymnastics.

“Club gymnastics doesn’t put the gymnast first,” Shepherd said. “High school gymnastics is really more of a community than club gymnastics because club gymnastics is all based on, ‘Make sure you’re No. 1.’ The coaches don’t care about your mental health or your injuries as much. They don’t prioritize you, they prioritize the team.”

Sanders said that many club programs consist of girls from several different schools, potentially making it more difficult to bond with one another. Shepherd emphasized that the relationships built at the prep level are a major reason why she quickly gained a liking for high school gymnastics, not only with her teammates but also with her instructors.

“It’s just having that environment where you can lean on the coaches, but not be afraid of the coaches,” Shepherd said. “That was the main difference. I used to be terrified of some of my club coaches, but now I have great relationships with my high school coaches.”

The growth of gymnastics has endured over the past decade. New programs are popping up from county to county, and established programs are thriving with every meet.

However, there are still barriers to the sport’s continued expansion. Gymnastics has a higher learning curve than many other high school sports, and many schools around the state hesitate to endorse the addition of such an expensive program.

Both Regan and Denson noted that girls’ gymnastics lacks support from schools and influential groups that could play a role in the growth of the sport. Flag football has a public endorsement from the Falcons. Baseball, basketball and soccer all have professional leagues in the United States, promoting the sport on a nightly basis. What does gymnastics have?

For continued, sustained development, outside support is necessary. According to Denson, though, school board members and other decision-makers are starting to realize the potential of high school gymnastics in Georgia.

“These athletes are walking in these halls,” Denson said. “They have the skills. It’s just administration at the county level, where somebody’s got to wake up and say, ‘We can do this too.’ I think that’s happening.”

John James is a student at the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute.

You May Also Like

답글 남기기

이메일 주소는 공개되지 않습니다. 필수 필드는 *로 표시됩니다