As Curtis Roden caked his feet in chalk to prepare for his vault, a teammate cheered him on.
“You can do it! It’s the last vault of your career!”
Roden pounded down the mat, propelled himself off the springboard, flipped 540 degrees in the air – and stuck the landing.
His coach, Bill Gilbert of North Canton, Ohio, YMCA, patted him on the back and bellowed, “A 12.2! Wow!”
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In his last meet, Roden earned first in all six events and another for all-around. The seven medals weighed him down, literally. But he also carried the weight of wondering, at least a little, if he had earned all the medals he received in his 13-year career.
He was one of just two boys standing on the podium Thursday. His teammate Tyler Elder was the only other boy competing at his level of the YMCA’s National Gymnastics Championships.
Wichita is hosting the championships this weekend, drawing more than 1,200 gymnasts from around the country. On Thursday, the multiple gyms at Century II were a dizzying blur of lollipop-colored leotards in motion.
But for a few hours on Thursday morning, a small corner of the competition area lacked sequined scrunchies and balance beams. Here, in Gym A, 25 boys competed – not a single one from Kansas.
Most were younger than 10 years old, still immune to the stereotype that gymnastics is for girls.
Give them a couple of years and many will abandon acrobatics for mainstream sports like basketball and baseball, said Eric Smith, the boys coach at 360 Gymnastics in Olathe.
Mark West, another of Roden’s teammates, was just the opposite. He played football and baseball as a child and joined gymnastics at 10 because he “just loved the idea of flipping around.”
Now 15, West has been teased throughout all of middle school and into his freshman year of high school.
“But it’s never made me want to quit,” he said. “Never.”
Roden was also teased in middle school, but the mockery ended as his muscles grew. Some of the bullies who did gymnastics as a child even admitted they wished they had stuck with it, he said.
Gymnastics helps boys become better in other sports, said Kyle Filiatreault, the boys coach at JAG Gymnastics, the only private gym in Wichita that offers competitive boys gymnastics.
The strength and flexibility Roden developed through gymnastics helped him in his other sports, diving and pole vaulting, he said.
Only a handful of states offer a men’s high school gymnastics program. Ohio – where West and Roden reside – does not. The nearest club gym is an hour’s drive away for their parents, so they made do with the local YMCA.
There were 58 high school boys gymnastics teams in Kansas in 1969. Today, there are none.
Some attribute this to the lackluster economy. Others point to Title IX, which created more opportunities for women to compete but also started the slow process of athletic departments dropping men’s programs.
The same went for college programs. In the early ’70s, male gymnasts had 150 options. Now, there are 16 Division I programs.
The University of Kansas dropped both men’s and women’s gymnastics in 1980. Kansas State discontinued them in 1977.
“As a coach, it’s a buyer’s market,” said Mark Williams, head coach of the men’s gymnastics team at Oklahoma University. “I can get 50 recruits and handpick one or two.”
And while girls face more competition for scholarships, they also have more options. There are approximately 60 Division I women’s college gymnastic programs, Williams said.
Female Olympic-level gymnasts are often not even in college programs. Gabby Douglas won the gold medal at age 16 in 2012. Carly Patterson won gold at 15 in 2004.
Male gymnasts do not reach their physical peak until about age 24, so college programs often serve as a pipeline.
For Williams, who has coached men’s gymnastics at Oklahoma University for 26 years, this should be a reason for more men’s programs.
But the number of men’s programs continues to dwindle, and so does the level of competition.
Just look at Curtis Roden. He’s had several competitions in which he stood solo at the podium.
With each of the 16 schools offering only six scholarships, Roden was unwilling to take the collegiate gamble. In the fall, he will attend Cleveland State University and study exercise science.
He’ll still be flipping, but now into the pool.
Despite only four years of experience, Roden earned a diving scholarship. Practice starts in August.
Reach Kelly Meyerhofer at 316-268-6357 or email@example.com.