As soon as Alaina Urman could walk, she was doing gymnastics.
The Olathe South sophomore has been participating in the sport since she was 1 1/2 years old. In middle school, she spent as many as 32 hours a week at the gym. The sport was — and still is — her life.
That is, unless her school district cuts the program.
Local districts, including the Olathe and Shawnee Mission systems, are contemplating shuttering their gymnastics programs because of declining numbers.
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“The conversation’s been going on for years in gymnastics circles,” Olathe district athletic director Tim Brady said, citing lack of interest from students and a difficulty in finding qualified gymnastics coaches in the area. “This is probably the year that there’s been the strongest chance of ending the program. ... We just want to make sure that all of our athletic and activity programs are vital — we want quality programming.”
According to Jennie Terflinger, who coaches both the Shawnee Mission South and SM East gymnastics programs, the Shawnee Mission district’s programs are in danger, too. District athletic director Richard Kramer has previously told Terflinger that he wants to make the official proposal to the board of education to end gymnastics. Kramer did not respond to interview requests.
If either school district cuts its program — and especially if both do — the Kansas State High School Activities Association faces a decision about the future of the state gymnastics meet. This season, 13 schools are participating.
But should that number of schools fall much lower, KSHSAA would consider ending the program state-wide. The organization faced the same decision in 1990, when the Kansas high school boys gymnastics program ended.
“At that time there were eight teams competing for individual honors (no team titles),” said Cheryl Gleason, an assistant executive director at KSHSAA who oversees gymnastics. “The following year fewer than eight schools expressed interest in competing. Therefore, the KSHSAA discontinued the state meet. The KSHSAA Executive Board is aware of past precedent and is supportive of the same for the girls.”
The Olathe school district, which includes four schools, has 28 girls participating, according to Brady. Although participation has dipped throughout the state, those who remain in the sport haven’t lost their love for it.
“The club level of gymnastics is mainly for younger girls who want to be Olympians,” Terflinger said. “Girls in high school, they’re talented enough to do that, but they want to be involved in their high school culture. This is a big program for these girls.”
Gymnasts from both school districts have launched a “Save Kansas high school gymnastics” campaign, including “Save Our Sport” T-shirts that they’ll wear at the state meet, which takes place on Saturday at Shawnee Mission South.
Before the meet, more than 100 alumni will convene to celebrate the past 44 years of Kansas high school gymnastics — an event that was organized out of the fear that Saturday’s meet could be the last.
“Our district AD has said he is making the recommendation to end the program, so we’re treating this state meet like it’s our last,” Terflinger said. “If it is our last, it’ll be our best.”
Neither school district has made official proposals to their respective school boards about ending the programs yet. But the understanding from parents, students and coaches is that those proposals could be made sometime after Saturday’s state meet. According to Brady, the idea of ending gymnastics in the Olathe district is still very much on the table.
He said that it would be the hardest decision he’s faced in 30 years as an administrator.
For now, gymnasts are operating under the assumption that it will take a last-minute Hail Mary to keep their sport alive next season.
“For any gymnast, it’s basically our lives,” Urman said. “It’s part of our personality and who we are, so if they take it away, they’re kind of taking away a piece of us.”