Editorial Note: This is the second of a two-part series into IHSAA gymnastics and how the sport is holding on both locally and statewide.
SYRACUSE – The announcement by Nika Prather that she was retiring in late February shook the area gymnastics scene. It also brought upon several questions as to how the sport will soldier forward at both Wawasee and throughout the area.
“Obviously it’s a tough decision, but I really felt like this was the right time,” Prather said in February after Wawasee’s final dual meet of the season against Plymouth.
Prather, along with her assistant, Sarah Wegener, both called it a wrap after the IHSAA State Finals concluded in March. The two were able to get an entrant, senior Aundreya Wegener, into a base score role on floor at the unpopulated state finals, and all three left Worthen Arena happy.
That left the program, however, in flux and unsure of its future. And Wawasee isn’t the only team as Warsaw is in a numbers crunch as are several of the teams in the Wawasee Sectional.
As of Saturday, April 4, Wawasee hadn’t posted the job openings for Prather’s and Wegener’s vacancies, per athletic director Cory Schutz. The athletic director did state, though, the school intends on keeping the team active next year despite a potential returning roster of just six.
“I don’t believe there is any minimum number of athletes required to maintain its status as an IHSAA sport,” Schutz said. “The subject of keeping (or not) gymnastics at Wawasee has never been discussed. We have all of the equipment (and then some), if we have girls willing to participate, we will continue to provide this opportunity for our female student athletes.”
While there have been athletes on rosters, the sectional itself has seen a dip in participation. Of the 14 total teams listed on the 2019-20 Wawasee Gymnastics Sectional program, only 64 total athletes comprised those teams. The team champion, DeKalb, did so with just five total gymnasts on its roster and four of the teams (Rochester, NorthWood, Bremen and Eastside) had just one gymnast entered. Warsaw had just three gymnasts active this season and were down to two for much of the campaign when one was out injured. Also of note, of the 64 gymnasts, only nine were seniors.
Parity, or lack thereof, in the sectional has also seen just three teams – Elkhart Central (5), DeKalb (3) and Angola (2) – win team titles in the last 10 years, and only four other teams – Wawasee, East Noble, Plymouth and Lakeland – finished in the top three to secure a regional berth during that stretch. Wawasee itself hasn’t won a sectional since 2004, Warsaw hasn’t had one since 2001.
“The plan is to continue gymnastics,” said Warsaw assistant athletic director Jeff Hamstra. “I don’t see us cutting it anytime in the near future as I think we have a pretty solid feeder system in place with what happens at the Y and CCAC.”
The state has seen a dramatic dip in the past decade. In 2010, 86 schools and 667 gymnasts were active, but as of last season, the sport is down to 73 schools and 525 athletes. Nearly a dozen of those 73 schools are solo-athlete teams.
The IHSAA is adamant it will keep the sport despite an 18-percent participation rate of its 412 member schools.
“I have faith and hopeful we will be able to fill a team next year,” said Warsaw head coach Tonya Douglass. “As far as know both girls should be back as well as Julianne Olson. There are some eighth graders who will be freshmen next year that have some interest. I would be happy if we could at least two new girls with some gymnastics abilities and experience. We will take what it is presented to us and make the most of it. Like I have said before since I have been coaching and helping with the team, numbers are usually between four and eight.”
Prather offered several factors are going into the decline, some more prevalent than others.
“The IHSAA commissioner continues to tell us the sport is critical,” Prather said driving home from the IHSAA State Finals in March. “Judges and coaches are retiring or leaving, and no one is replacing them. Young people don’t want to work. They don’t want to do it or put in the energy. They just want to hang out. They lack the responsibility it takes to put in hard work and all the things that come with it. It’s too much of a specialized sport to just walk in and be good at it. It takes time and a lot of practice.”
Wegener, who was a gymnast for Prather in the early 90s, piggybacked, “If you get into the sport, you get into it young. They spend a lot of time working at it. You just don’t see that today. The ones you see at the highest levels, they have done it their whole life. They are in clubs year-round. You don’t just come into your school in November and say I want to do this. The girls competing at the state finals didn’t just start working in November.”
To the notion of officials, former Wawasee gymnastics coach Tracy Sumpter is one of the few gymnastics officials in the area. Her viewpoint as a former coach and now an official shed some light as to where the sport is headed.
“You truly hope some of your former gymnasts you had in the past like it enough to want to get involved,” Sumpter said. “If they get into a coaching role, can they remember the way they were coached and continue that to the next group of kids. It’s hard to find them because it’s a very specialized sport.”