SYRACUSE – Walking into the annex gym on the western corner of Wawasee High School, there is a giant wooden sign situated above the lockerroom entrance. For years, gymnasts have emerged through those doors to compete for and against Wawasee. And for 33 years, Nika Prather has overseen those host gymnasts. The sign above those doors has the sectional championships – all 23 of the years – painted as a reminder of the greatness.
Prather announced last week she is stepping down as coach of the gymnastics program.
Prather became an assistant coach for Tracy Sumpter’s ultra-successful program in 1988. Wawasee would be in the middle of six straight sectional championships when Prather joined in, and little did anyone know that both would be connected to the sport over 30 years later. Last Tuesday night at Wawasee’s final home dual of the season, Prather made her retirement announcement public. And Sumpter was in the gym, working as an official as she has for a good portion of Nika’s coaching run in Syracuse.
“I think the most positive thing about Nika is that she has fun,” Sumpter said. “If you talk to the gymnasts she has had over the years, they come back because they have fun. They have memories of when they had fun. They may not remember the time they fell off the beam four times, but they remember the fun stuff they did. That’s why she’s successful.”
Over two dozen of those gymnasts were in the building for the announcement. And for one, it was Prather’s caring approach that has her still in support over a decade later.
“There was a practice where I was having a really tough time on a skill. She told me to walk away and breathe, so I did,” stated Mandy O’Connell, who was a gymnast in the mid-2000s. “I don’t remember what she said after that, but it made me laugh, I forgot everything and I just went and did what I was supposed to do.”
Prather took over the high school program as head coach in 1994. Much like with the pairing of Sumpter and Prather, there would be another connection neither guessed would resurface. Sarah Wegener was wrapping up her senior season at Wawasee when Prather came into the lead role in 1994. It would be 14 years later that Wegener would take Prather’s offer to become an assistant coach. The two have been together ever since. And both announced they will walk out together.
“I am a graduate of Wawasee so I will always be a Warrior,” Wegener said, who cited teaching in the Whitko school system has strained availability. “Not coaching there won’t change that. When I first started coaching with Nika, it was kind of surreal because she was the assistant coach under Tracy Sumpter when I was in high school. I couldn’t have been more excited to join her.”
The two are leaving a crushing void in what could arguably be the most successful program in school history. Gymnastics and wrestling both share the lead with 23 sectional titles, and both have a host of state qualifiers and each have state champions. Prather herself guided Wawasee to seven sectional titles in her 26 years as head coach.
The glue that likely brought the two retiring coaches together is Aundreya Wegener. Only a kindergartner when Sarah joined the staff, Drey has grown into the top gymnast in this year’s program and not only got to train and eventually perform for Prather, but had mom on board the entire way. Her final home meet at the sectional this past weekend was extra special as Drey finished sixth on floor and will continue to the regional.
“Both coaches, well Nika and mom, they both have very genuine hearts and that still translates no matter what year it is,” Drey said. “I think Nika has stayed with her coaching style and we have to live up to those expectations. That keeps us in line and helps us become better people as well as gymnasts.”
Upon the end of the meet last Tuesday, as the crowd started to slowly work their way to Nika, her biggest fan broke through. A kiss and a smile from her husband, Mike, opened up a party Nika surely deserved. One by one, second graders and second grade teachers, current gymnasts and former coaches, they all took turns offering hugs and sharing stories.
It’s exactly how Nika has operated for over four decades in this position.
“I’ve been doing this for half my life,” offered Prather, who gave half the equation of 33 years as a high school coach. “And really if you add my years all together, I’ve been doing this for over 40 years. But to see all these faces, it’s really special to me.
“You see all these faces out here and it really makes you realize how long you’ve been doing this,” continued Prather. “There’s young women here who have kids in gymnastics club and camps. Really puts it all in perspective.”