Is Gymnastics in for a Tumble? : High schools: Although the number of programs has dwindled, champions of the sport say it still fills a need.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mary Daniels, who coached gymnastics for 17 years at Santana High School and is now that school's athletic director, is a staunch believer in high school gymnastics. Yet it exists in only four leagues county-wide, and the caliber of high school gymnasts is lower than those in in age-group competition.

But Mary Daniels continues to believe in its role in school.

"I think (gymnastics) serves a different kind of athlete," she said. "A lot of the girls are more of the cheerleader type. Maybe they've had a dance background and like that competition. It does service a large group of girls."

Is high school gymnastics dying?

It depends. There seems to be a stability in the programs that do exist, though gymnastics--as it exists today in San Diego County--is a far cry from what it used to be.

There were about a dozen boys' programs until 1970, and there was even a state championship.

Gymnastics became a California Interscholastic Federation sport in 1974, and all four areas of the county boasted programs. In fact, a couple of city teams excelled at that time. Madison was runner-up to Santana for the county title in 1975-76, and La Jolla was runner-up in 1977. But a decade later, by 1985, there were no more programs in the city or the South Bay.

Santana has been the dominant force in gymnastics and goes for its 11th section title on Saturday at Torrey Pines. In the program's heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Daniels had 30 to 35 athletes, about as many as you can handle in a program. Today, there are 25 on Becca Webster's team, three more than last year.

But the decrease in the number of high school programs parallels the sport at other levels. San Diego State, for instance, dropped its competitive program in 1985. The head coach was Ed Franz.

"Obviously, there's been quite a decline at the university as well as the high school levels," said Franz, who coached SDSU from 1965 to 1985. "They had competitive gymnastics for boys in the city schools and the boys were the first to go, and within the state of California, there used to be a very large number of junior college teams. There were 48 teams in the state and now there are no more junior college programs in the state and none in the country that I'm aware of."

Franz has remained involved in gymnastics as the director of SDSU Aztec Gymnastics Program.

"With San Diego Unified (School District) dropping their programs and with continuing budget constraints and the problem of finding personnel and coaches and staff positions, I fear the (number of) programs will go down and not return," Franz said. "If, in fact, (school districts) had adequate budgets, which they do not, they still have a difficult time finding competent coaches, so they drop programs because they don't have the funds or they can't find the coaches."

Escondido High dropped its program this season when it couldn't find a coach.

Most of the county's 21 high school coaches have fewer than five years at their schools, and most are walk-on coaches, not faculty members, which makes it difficult for those coaches to remain with their programs.

"It's harder and harder every year to find coaches with experience," Webster said. "Not only do you want to find someone with experience in gymnastics, but with experience teaching at all levels, (including) the compulsory and the optional, which is the most difficult to coach because they need to be able to make up routines with the girls and know the latest techniques on the tricks, as well as know how to spot them.

"And on top of that, you have to find someone who's good at motivating the girls and keeping them interested in gymnastics. . . . High school girls need a lot more motivation than club girls (because) they're coming back in to the sport and their body styles have changed and it takes a lot of time to deal with it."

And club gymnasts are usually paying for the opportunity, so there's more at stake.

Webster has seen gymnastics from every angle. She was a club gymnast until 1985 and was the county's gymnast of the year in 1986, her senior season at Santana. She became an assistant coach at Santana in 1987 and the head coach in 1989.

"It is dying, there's no doubt about it," Webster said. "But it's not dying to the point where it can't come back at all."

And exactly what would represent a comeback for the sport instead of maintaining an apparent holding pattern? More higher-level athletes.

In the mid-1980s, most schools in the Grossmont 2-A and 3-A leagues could field a complete varsity roster, which included three girls competing for the all-around title in both compulsory and optional routines. In short, six girls in all who were competing in all four events, the vault, uneven parallel bars, balance beam and floor exercise. This year, Webster said, no more than a handful of Grossmont Conference schools fielded complete teams.

Two of the county's newest schools, West Hills and Rancho Bernardo, include gymnastics programs.

"I think those (existing) programs are real stable and the level of performance of those kids is not that much lower than it's ever been," said Glen Vaughan, who heads the Mission Valley YMCA and has been a part of the county's gymnastics scene since 1970.

Vaughan is glad high school gymnastics exists, despite some of its problems, and sees the club programs as a feeder for the high schools.

"We've got kids that go to nationals (in the club program) and never get any recognition," he said. "They finish fifth or sixth in school and they're big heroes. Finally, they're getting something for all the hard work they've put in."

Said Daniels: "(Gymnastics is) popular enough in the Grossmont District that it hasn't been dropped. In the North County, it seems stronger than ever. I haven't seen it going any further downhill. It's been pretty stable. As far as competitiveness, you're seeing a higher level of gymnastics in the high schools, but you're seeing fewer schools participating."

Poway's first-year coach, Gloria Wheeler, agrees: "Girls are doing today what five years ago they weren't doing in the Olympics. (Mt. Carmel assistant) Monique Lamphiere-Tamayoshi used to compete on the French national team and said the most difficult thing she did when she competed was a back layout; now, they're doing back double fulls (two twists before they land) and they're doing this on a wrestling mat, not a spring floor."

Twelve of 16 Avocado and Palomar league schools fielded teams this season, but not all fielded full varsity teams. Nine of 10 Grossmont Conference schools fielded teams. But the athlete's participation, not the number of varsity competitors, seems to be the most important thing to supporters of the sport.

"If you're going to provide a well-rounded education for students, we shouldn't minimize opportunities for serving fewer students, but maximize that opportunity for students to remain active in school programs," Franz said.

With the high cost of equipment and with school districts cutting corners where they can, it is unlikely any new programs will begin in the near future. Just the rails that are used on the uneven bars cost $600, and each complete piece of equipment is about $1,000. Mats are another $600 apiece and it takes at least five to be properly equipped for a high school meet.

But as long as gymnastics maintains its status quo, supporters of the sport will remain happy.

Is it dying?

"I hope not," Daniels said. "I would hate to see it because I feel it serves a group of kids that maybe wouldn't go out for any other athletic sport. It's a beautiful sport. It teaches the kids discipline, poise and confidence. I have seen it change so many kids' lives, shy little wallflowers who have blossomed because of the sport at the high school level."

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