Varsity Kansas

After years of doubt, high school gymnastics is alive and well in Kansas

Newton gymnastics beating the odds, surviving after many programs fall

High school gymnastics has fallen from grace in Kansas, but Newton's program has survived and now the sport is making a comeback.
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High school gymnastics has fallen from grace in Kansas, but Newton's program has survived and now the sport is making a comeback.

JoAnne Thaw looked around a near-emptied gymnasium and kind of laughed to herself.

“This is our league meet,” she said.

The Newton gymnastics coach had just wrapped up a dual meet against Emporia in which the Railers came up 0.4 points short. But Emporia didn’t get any sort of league trophy and won’t see a banner in its gym next year.

Because there is no league.

Emporia is just the closest high school to Newton that still has a gymnastics team. It’s an hour’s drive between the two schools.

There are only 15 Kansas high schools left competing in gymnastics, which is still a Kansas State High School Activities Association-sponsored sport. Newton and Emporia are the only two outside of the greater Kansas City metro.

Thaw said a lot of people — even fellow Newton coaches and students — come up to her and are surprised to find out the Railers still have a team. And that can be frustrating for some of the gymnasts who continue to put in three-hour practices every day after school.

“It’s a really unique sport around here since we are the only ones who offer it in our area,” sophomore Toria Thaw said. “So I just think it would be weird if it just wasn’t there.”

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Newton sophomore Toria Thaw on the balance beam during the Railers’ home meet against Emporia on Monday. (Oct. 8, 2018) Hayden Barber The Wichita Eagle

Here are some facts about gymnastics to set the stage:

  • There is still a state championship site and meet.
  • This year’s state meet is Oct. 20 at Shawnee Mission South.
  • Olathe Northwest took the overall team state championship in 2017, edging Olathe East by 0.775 points.
  • Only eight teams can qualify for the state meet, based on their top four regular-season meet scores.
  • Teams can merge together if there are insufficient athletes, coaches or facilities for a school to field one on its own.
  • “Merged” athletes will compete as individuals during the postseason.
  • Teams compete in regular-season meets once a week, on average.

With most of the schools in the Kansas City area, the Railers are on the road every week ... and sometimes twice. With Emporia being the closest competition, Newton is forced to drive close to three hours one way for almost every meet.

Toria said sometimes the drives are fun because of all the memories the girls make, but it can get grueling.

“I think we spend more time on the road than we do competing,” junior Becca Meyer said. “It’s fun on weekends. It’s not fun on a weekday when you get home at 1 in the morning and still have to do homework.”

Thaw has seen a lot of changes in Kansas high school gymnastics. She started at Newton 45 years ago. Back then, almost every school in the Wichita area had a gymnastics program. Three-hour drives were far less common.

There were AVCTL league meets, and the Railers won seven of them, the last title coming in 1976.

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Newton’s Acacia Penner prepares for a back handspring during the Railers’ home meet against Emporia on Monday night. (Oct. 8, 2018) Hayden Barber The Wichita Eagle

Slowly, the number of competing schools dwindled. Bill Faflick, KSHSAA executive director and former City League athletic director, said the Wichita schools started to merge teams in the early 2000s before many programs “died a natural death.”

In 2009, Thaw was told Newton was going to cut the program after the season.

“The superintendent made a remark that, ‘Well, if they can raise the money ... ’“ Thaw said. “So we turned around and raised $11,000 in five weeks.”

That year, the Railers won their first and only state championship.

“They reinstated it,” Thaw said. “After we won, it’s kind of hard to say, ‘No more.’ “

Newton hasn’t had that same success since its championship season, but Thaw said the school hasn’t threatened to take the sport away again.

In 2016, though, another threat came from the northeast.

The Olathe and Shawnee Mission districts contemplated shutting down their high school gymnastics programs, and that would have meant Newton and Emporia and any other programs in Kansas would have to follow, Thaw said.

Schools had trouble finding qualified coaches and getting consistent interest from a double-digit number of schools. Olathe athletics director Tim Brady told the Kansas City Star in 2016, “We just want to make sure that all of our athletic and activity programs are vital — we want quality programming.”

The 2016 state meet was “grand” Thaw said. Programs from across Kansas billed it as the last high school gymnastics meet in Kansas history, because they believed it would be. But it wasn’t.

The Olathe and Shawnee Mission districts didn’t end up cutting their programs. Coaches in the KC area called Thaw and asked how she gained the financial support to keep her program alive, and they did the same. So the sport lived on. Newton finished that state meet 0.225 points from a state championship, but just having that opportunity to compete means a lot, the Newton gymnasts said.

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Newton sophomore Toria Thaw goes upside down during her balance beam routine against Emporia on Monday. (Oct. 8, 2018) Hayden Barber The Wichita Eagle

But the message was sent throughout the gymnastics community, and Thaw acted. She offered free lessons at her club and endorsed joining the high school team. It hurt her business but built her passion, she said.

Railer gymnasts asked classmates to join, first as a joke, then more seriously.

Now, Thaw said, the sport is more stable in Kansas. Participation is up 34 percent statewide this year. Newton went from five gymnasts to 10, and Thaw said two more schools could be interested in creating high school teams.

Although Thaw said she didn’t know whether Kansas would still have high school gymnastics in 10 or 15 years, Faflick said it will come down to each school’s support.

To create a KSHSAA-sponsored sport, at least 24 schools must be on board. But to maintain the sport’s active status, it just takes backing from each school. KSHSAA has never put an exact minimum on the number of schools needed to keep a sport alive, Faflick said.

He said he hopes that gymnastics isn’t going away anytime soon.

“I don’t have a crystal ball to expect what that support will be like,” Faflick said. “My guess is Coach Thaw probably has a succession plan in place.”

And she does, with former Newton gymnast Carlye Anderson now serving as an assistant coach. Toria is Thaw’s granddaughter, and Thaw said she will “probably” stay with the program until she graduates in two years.

Newton high school gymnastics: Carlye Anderson
Newton assistant gymnastics coach Carlye Anderson huge a Railer gymnast after her uneven bars routine during Newton’s home meet against Emporia on Monday. (Oct. 8, 2018) Hayden Barber The Wichita Eagle

Until then, the Newton student-athletes are just enjoying the opportunity to represent their school — no matter how far they have to travel or how few schools compete alongside them.

“I’ve done gymnastics since I was 3,” Meyer said. “I never did anything else, so I’m not really good at anything else. I rely on gymnastics to keep in physical shape. It helps a lot with my self-esteem and helps my social status.

“Losing gymnastics would probably take the biggest toll on me. I don’t know what I would do.”