Pioneers: Boys Gymnastics Before IHSA Sponsorship


A landmark year in the history of high school gymnastics in Illinois was certainly 1958, when the IHSA sponsored first state championship meet. But the story of gymnastics did not begin with 1958. It had a long star-studded history prior to the first IHSA meet, and that history included an invitational state meet held under the sponsorship of the University of Illinois from 1952 to 1957.

High school gymnastics in Illinois was the product of some far-sighted, hardworking individuals who had pioneered the sport for decades trying to build interest. Gymnastics originated as an ethnic sport, practiced by Czechs and Slovaks in Sokol Clubs and by Germans in Turner Halls. It was a Czech-American from the West Side of Chicago, Henry Smidl (1894-1985), who almost single-handedly introduced the sport to Illinois high schools.

Smidl, a member of Sokol Chicago at 24th and Kedzie, was the national Sokol all-around champion from 1919 through 1926. He captained the United States gymnastics team in the World Gymnastics Championships in Prague in 1920 and 1926. In 1919, he began teaching at Englewood High on the South Side and there began an intramural gymnastics program. Itching for competition, in 1924 Smidl persuaded the Public League to sponsor a team championship in the sport. He recruited two other schools to form teams and to participate, Harrison High and Lane Tech. Harrison was located in a West Side Czech neighborhood, and many of its students belonged to Sokol Chicago where Smidl also instructed in gymnastics.

The following year Smidl moved to Lindblom, where he proceeded to create a gymnastics dynasty. Interrupted only by a three-year stay at Gage Park High in the early 1940s, Smidl won 24 senior titles for the school before his retirement in the late 1950s. Was he one of those hard taskmaster coaches and was that the reason for his extraordinary results? "Not at all," recalls his one-time student, Bill Roetzheim, "Henry Smidl was a very easy going coach. By him being head of the school's athletic department he did something that was not common then but is common now. He arranged that all the gymnasts would have P.E. the last period of the day, and thus could begin practice an hour earlier."

The Public League system of competition was different from the system we know today. As Roetzheim relates, "The Chicago schools had three levels of competition in which points could be scored — novice, intermediate, and championship — and the reason Smidl won all those championships was that he put equal emphasis on all three levels. Some rival coaches just concentrated on the championship level."

After about a decade, however, Lindblom was challenged by another gymnastics power, Senn, whose team was coached by Al Bergmann, a product of the Turners. He had helped make Lincoln Turners on the North Side a national power. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s the two schools battled for the league championship. During that period Senn produced a host of great gymnasts, the trampoliner Gay Hughes, as well as the Shanken twins, Courtney and Earl, all of whom went on to the University of Chicago to win NCAA titles. Two later Senn gymnasts, Ronnie Amster and Mike Aufrecht, also won NCAA titles.

Lane Tech, an also-ran in gymnastics in the 1940s, had a champion in Irvin Bedard, one of the greatest tumblers the state of Illinois ever produced. He took the city title four years straight, 1942-1945. "He was a fabulous tumbler," remembers Giallombardo. "His father, who worked for the Chicago Park District, was his coach. When Irv was ten years old he went to the national AAU meet with me. He competed against college kids, but it was an exhibition, even though he was sensational. He was ineligible because he wasn't 14 or 15." In 1960 Bedard would start the gymnastics program at West Leyden; he also founded the Illinois High School Gymnastics Sports Association.

Smidl produced one of the most expert gymnasts ever to come out of Illinois schools, Bill Roetzheim, who was a Turner product. In 1944 and 1945 he took the Public League title with unheard-of high scores, and helped regained the team championship for Lindblom from Senn. Roetzheim later participated in two Olympic Games and won multiple national championships in both the NCAA and the AAU. Today he is one of the nation's most respected authorities on gymnastics and an international official in the sport.

The University of Illinois, under coach Hartley Price, was the first dominant college power in gymnastics and established its pre-eminence by recruiting from Chicago schools and from Cleveland, another hotbed of gymnastics. Among their Cleveland recruits was Joe Giallombardo, who discovered gymnastics at Cleveland East Tech and who honed his skills in the Turners. While at Illinois he won more NCAA titles than any other gymnast in history. In 1940 he was recruited by New Trier to teach and begin a gymnastics program. The program was rudimentary at first, with Giallombardo conducting a few exhibitions with the city powers, Senn and Lindblom.

Among his students was Don Von Ebers. "Joe Giallombardo was such a great gymnast," recalls Von Ebers. "He inspired me to work hard to become a good gymnast and to make teaching and gymnastics my career. I patterned my life after him." Von Ebers was the coach of the state championship Hersey team of 1974 and was instrumental in forming the National High School Gymnastics Coaching Association.

Giallombardo's progress was interrupted by World War II, but upon his return to New Trier in 1946 he established a gymnastics program on firm footing. In 1952, Giallombardo and several coaches around the state got together with the then University of Illinois coach, Charlie Pond, to establish the first invitational state meet. Pond, who maintained Illinois' extraordinary success in the sport throughout the 1950s, saw the meet as a recruiting tool as well. Recalls Giallombardo, "We got together and said let's hold a contest. And we sent out letters and information and that's how we got started."

The inaugural meet, held in the first week of May, was a modest event, attracting only five schools — New Trier, Chicago University, Carmi, Zion-Benton, and Macomb. The Chicago public schools showed no interest in the invitational. New Trier won the meet, and one of its gymnasts, Don Hampton, won the most outstanding gymnast award. There was no all-around competition in the first years of the meet. The horizontal bar winner, Jon Culbertson, from New Trier, was an Olympic Games alternate in 1960. Culbertson is now an international judge in the sport.

In the fall of 1951, Gay Hughes, who won the very first NCAA title in the trampoline in 1948, began teaching at Arlington High. The first year he established a trampoline club, but the second year he formed a full-fledged gymnastics team. He took that team to the second annual state meet and had remarkable success, taking second to New Trier in a six-team meet. The other teams were all from downstate — Carmi, Canton, Champaign, and Macomb Western.

Also in the fall of 1951, Don Von Ebers joined the Leyden staff and began a gymnastics program. "Athletic director Sam England," says Von Ebers, "was looking for a teacher who could start a gymnastics program. He thought highly of gymnastics and wanted it introduced into Leyden." Von Ebers began working at first with underclassmen and did not field his first varsity squad until 1954, when he took his team to the third state tournament. "We got old used equipment to start with," recalls Von Ebers, "and had to scramble quite a bit. And we had cramped inadequate space until the field house was built in 1957."

It was in the 1954 state invitational that the old man of Illinois high school gymnastics, Henry Smidl, finally had his turn. He apparently disdained the meet the two previous years, but had finally decided to join the fun competing against eight schools. "He had some outstanding gymnasts that year," recalls Giallombardo, "and wanted to show them off." Lindblom edged New Trier for the title. Arlington took third and was followed by Carmi. Other schools participating were Roosevelt and South Shore of Chicago; and Leyden, Glenbrook, and Champaign. Sanford Horn of Roosevelt won the outstanding gymnast award. Tumbler Frank Hailand of South Shore, who finished third in the state meet, would later win two NCAA championships.

As powerful as the presence of the Chicago schools in the 1954 meet it was clear that gymnastics competition was shifting towards the suburbs, where students of Smidl and Bergmann were starting up programs. "At a banquet all us coaches were attending," relates Giallombardo, "I can remember Henry Smidl saying 'You guys will be taking over in a few years.' We simply had the younger coaches in the suburban schools."

In 1955 it was Arlington's turn to take the state invitational, which was now moved up to mid-March. John Koeppen of Arlington took three firsts — on the rings, horizontal bar, and long horse. His vault on the long horse according to Charlie Pond "was the best he had seen in high school or college in the past five years." Lindblom was second, followed by Senn and New Trier. Leyden, Carmi, and Jacksonville completed the field. There should have been more than seven teams in the field — as there were at least ten other schools in the state that year that had teams and chose not to compete.

In 1956, New Trier beat out Arlington for first in an eight-team field. The New Trier team was anchored by two future NCAA titlists — sophomore Ray Hadley who took first in all-around (new in 1956), tumbling, and trampoline; and junior Bill Buck, who took first in side horse and parallel bars. Senn and Lindblom took third and fourth respectively. A new school in the meet was York High, which under coach Vic Lesch was fast building a program. An up-and-coming sophomore on the York team was Fred Tijerina, who would win the NCAA title on parallel bars in 1961. Proviso under first-year coach Bill Roetzheim had a team that year, but it was a young squad hampered by lack of equipment and the school chose not to participate in the meet.

The 1957 meet saw New Trier again in the top spot. Hadley took first in the all-around and three individual events. Senn took second, and entering a team comprised largely of underclassmen, Proviso surprised the eleven-team field by taking third. Newcomers to the meet were Maine and Moline. The tumbling champion was a remarkable sophomore Hal Holmes from Urbana High. He was an early protege of Charlie Pond and by his senior year won the first of four consecutive AAU national championships. "He was incredible," recalls Giallombardo. "He was the first high school boy to do a double back somersault. That was unheard-of then."

By the 1957 season the IHSA had seen that gymnastics was growing steadily, and made the decision to sponsor the next year's meet. "There really were not a sufficient number of schools under the IHSA rules to begin official sponsorship," explains Von Ebers, "but the IHSA began sponsorship on a trial basis in hopes that it would grow. And it did grow."

But there was no growth in Chicago, where the sport was in decline. Roetzheim explains, "It was just the facilities. When the suburban schools opened up to gymnastics their facilities were just so superior. The Chicago schools couldn't compete with just two gyms — a girls' and a boys'. Plus, the glue that held the Chicago program together — Henry Smidl and Al Bergmann — both of them were up there in age and had retired by the end of the decade." Punctuating Roetzheim's remarks, Giallombardo says, "Smidl and Bergmann were up in years, and I don't think they pushed the sport as much as we did."

By 1958 Smidl was gone and Lindblom no longer had a team. In 1959, Bergmann led Senn to its fifth consecutive city championship and then retired. But with his retirement Senn dropped the sport. Thus it would be in the suburbs where the sport would flourish under IHSA sponsorship.

Many thanks to Stanley Barcal, Irvin Bedard, Joe Giallombardo, Bill Roetzheim, and Donald Von Ebers for so graciously providing interviews.

Boys Gymnastics Still Evolving as Millennium Begins

By Dick Quagliano

Chicago Sun-Times

While many sports have not changed much since their inception as an Illinois High School Association approved sport, boys gymnastics has been constantly looking to improve.

"The sport has always been changing," said Addison Trail coach Fred Dennis. "But changing for the better. The routines are stronger, the equipment better and the scores are the highest ever."

The sport traces its roots in Illinois back to the 20's when Chicago Public League schools Lindblom and Senn began holding gymnastic classes during physical education. These classes evolved into interscholastic competition and the sport was born.

New Trier coach Joe Giallombardo picked up the sport in the 40's and began to introduce it throughout the suburbs. Arlington coach Gay Hughes along with Leyden coach DonVonEbers began to compete along with New Trier and University High School Chicago in 1953.

During that time, the University of Illnois began to sponsor a state finals series. It was competed in the old University of Illinois gymnasium and New Trier won the first state championship in 1952. The Trevians would go on to win four of the first six state championships.

With the hiring of Leroy Knoppel at Arlington and Bill Roetzheim at Proviso boys gymnastics began to flourish. Still, the sport had controversy surrounding which events would be competed.

A compromise was finally reached and an agreement on dual meet formats were adopted. Tumbling and trampoline, two staples with Chicago schools would still be competed, but they would not be part of the all-around program.

With that agreement in place, the Illinois High School Association took over sponsorship of the State championships. Proviso won the first official state championship with Ken Donofrio leading the way, winning the first all-around title.

There have been numerous changes in the routines that are competed. The current six routines: the floor, vault, high bar, parallel bars, still rings and the pommel horse have been competed together as a group since 1978.

The vault was added 1978, remaking an appearance after being competed from 1954 to 1958. The vault's return to competition replaced the trampoline, which was competed from 1952 to 1978.

Tumbling, which consisted of free tumbling on gym mats, was competed from 1952 to 1968. It was replaced by the free exercise, which later evolved into the current floor exercise.

"The old floor was really something," Hinsdale Central coach Neil Krupicka said. "It was not like today's floor at all. Since they were literally on the floor with a couple of mats, guys would start out at the other end of the gym for their first pass."

The scoring system has also undergone tremendous changes throughout the years.

Individuals have been scored on a 100-point system before the change to the current 10 point system.

The state meet has also undergone various scoring changes before settling on the current system where the eight state championship teams all compete on one day for the state title. In the past, there was individual qualifying and team competition on one day and the state finalists could increase their team score with a better performance at the individual finals.

"We went to this system to give the state qualifying teams their own competition," said Eric Liva, who is the head coach of Hinsdale South and current president of the Illinois Boys Gymnastics Coaches Association.

"This has the best teams in the gym at one time to decide a champion. There is no adding in scores the next day like the old system. You compete on one day for the team title and that's it."

Team champions have been decided since 1952 when Winnetka New Trier won the title with a score of 189. Since that time only 16 different schools have won the state championship.

Hinsdale Central has won more state titles than any other school, winning nine times. Addison Trail is second with seven titles, followed by Mundelein and Arlington, which have each won five times.

Only two schools have won the championship at least three consecutive years. Hinsdale Central won four titles in a row from 1970 through 1973 while Addison Trail won three in a row from 1980 to 1982.

The 1982 Addison Trail team, coached by Dennis, is considered to be the best in state history. The Blazers, led by Robby Brown, Neil Palmer, Scott Cazel, and Mike Harris scored a 169.508. That score included the team's top all-around average added back into the final score.

"There was a lot of depth there," said Dennis, who has coached all seven of his school's championship teams. "We had a few sixth men sitting that were awfully good. It was by far the best team we ever had."

Other great teams in the history of the state include the Conant team of 1998 that scored a 163.15 and last year's state championship team from Mundelein which set the modern day record of 164.85.

"That was a great team," said Mundelein coach Doug Foerch, who has coached all five of his school's championship teams. "It is a record we are very proud of."

While Addison Trail may have had the best team, no school has dominated the state meet like Hinsdale Central. The Red Devils have been to 25 state finals, winning a state trophy 19 times. Currently, Hinsdale Central has won 10 consecutive trophies for finishing as one of the top three teams in the state.

"We are very proud of what we have accomplished," said Krupicka, who has coached 6 state championship teams. "It is a real tribute to all the kids that have competed here."

While the team title has made up some of the drama at the state finals, it is still the individual competitors that have left the most sustaining memories.

Since 1952 there have been 1,611 awards for finishing in the top five of an event.

Those awards have been won by 880 different competitors hailing from 96 schools.

Surprisingly, the old Arlington High School has had the most top five finishers. Arlington, despite closing its doors in 1975, has had 101 medalists. They are followed by Addison Trail which has had 99, and Hinsdale Central which has had 90.

Arlington and Hinsdale Central have each had 58 different gymnasts win medals while York is third with 49.

There have been 35 all-around champions since the all-around was established in 1958. Proviso's Ken Donofrio won the first all-around title with Stevenson's Eric Block currently the defending state champion.

No gymnast has won the all-around title for three consecutive years, but seven gymnasts have won it two consecutive times. Proviso East's Richard Swetman did it the first time in 1965-66. He was followed by Niles West's Bart Conner in '74-'75; Conant's Marc Jones in '87-'88; Mundelein's T.J. Dortch '89-'90 and Jon Wasik in '92-'93; St. Viator's Matt Schoen in '94-'95; and Homewood-Flossmoor's Derek Hartman in '97-'98.

Of those names, the one to go on to better his gymnastic career was Conner. He appeared in the '84 Olympics winning the gold medal in parallel bars and picking another one up as member of the winning U.S. gymnastics team.

Conner's accomplishments in the Olympics overshadowed his high school performance. Conner was the first all-arounder to average a 9.0 or better.

He accomplished that feat in 1975 when he scored a 45.45 in the five events of the all-around. Conner was dominating in his performance that year winning the floor, the high bars and parallel bars and finishing second on the pommel horse.

That average of 9.09 stood until 1988 when Jones scored a 54.80 or a 9.13 average. Jones' all-around record has been broken three times and is currently held by Wasik with his score of 57.00 or 9.50 in 1993. Wasik was also exception in his performance, winning the parallel bars, rings and vault while finishing third on the floor and fourth in the high bar and the pommel horse.

While Wasik was dominant that year and in his career, he is second to Brown with the most top five finishes. Wasik had 14 top five finishes to Brown's 16. Conner won 13 medals while Doertch and New Trier's Ray Hadley, who competed in 1955-57 are next, each picking of 12 medals.

Brown and Conner are the only gymnasts to have ever won three consecutive individual state titles. Conner won three consecutive parallel bars from 1973-75 while Brown won three high bars from 1980-82.

During those times both set records for high score in the event. But with better equipment, coaching and new techniques, those records have fallen. Hartman currently holds the high bar record with a 9.80 in 1997. Jones broke Conner's record in 1988 when he scored a 9.80. Brown still holds the vault record, the oldest record still standing, with a 9.80 that he set in 1982.

Other state individual records include the floor, which is held by three people. They are: Wasik, Homewood-Flossmoor's Anthony Cirullo and Wheaton North's Matt Speedy with a 9.70.

The rings record is also held by a trio of gymnasts. They are Dave Johnson of St. Rita, Marc Chiapetta of Mundelein and Matt Lorek of Hinsdale Central, all of whom scored a 9.80.

The IHSA still maintains record scores for events that are no longer competed. York's Curt Austin, the current coach at Libertyville holds the mark for the free exercise, Pekin's Doug Reynolds for tumbling and Elk Grove's Dave Hadley for the trampoline.

Those marks may never be broken along with one more: the score for the pommel horse.

Only one gymnast in the 48-history since records have been kept, has achieved the ultimate in perfection. That came in 1996 when Glenbard West's Josh Levin scored a 10.00 in the finals of the pommel horse. That came on the heels of a 9.95 score in the preliminaries.

With the changes that have taken place in the sport, it may be only a matter of time when another gymnast matches Levin's score in the pommel horse or another event.

One thing's for certain: The excitement in boys gymnastics will never end.