Every kid would love to have a landing
pit in his back yard like the one in Boyden Gym. Eight
feet deep and filled with spongy blocks of foam rubber, the pit's pillowy
softness lets gymnasts push their limits as they soar off the vault or
Using a little Yankee ingenuity and UMass
frugality, men's gymnastics coach Roy Johnson '76, '83G had the entire
$50,000 project built ten years ago without a penny of state money. Several
alumni pitched in materials and construction help, and metal safety railings
were salvaged from renovations at the football stadium and welded together
by members of his team.
The homemade facility has been a hit. "My
phone is ringing off the hook," says Johnson, who recruits athletes
by sending a UMass viewbook to the top 100 junior gymnasts in the country
and attending the Junior National Championships every year. "Kids
want to come here because we have the best location, the best
schedule, and the best facilities of any school in the east."
Justin Hammar and Brett Nelligan concur with
Johnson's assessment. Both are freshmen on this year's squad and, like
their teammate Jeff LaVallee - a senior whom Johnson considers a good
candidate for the 2000 Olympics began gymnastics training at private
clubs as children. They were inspired to attend UMass because of the top-level
equipment in Boyden, where both the men's and women's teams practice and
sometimes hold meets, and because of Johnson's persistence as a recruiter.
"Yeah, the facilities here are great,"
says Nelligan, with Hammar nodding in agreement as they pause between
practice runs on the vault. "And Roy always got back to me right
away whenever I called him," Hammar put in.
After a moment of concentration Nelligan
sprints at top speed along a carpeted runway, then plants both feet on
a springboard, launching himself above a four-foot-high leather "horse"
while pushing off with his hands and propelling his body, twisting and
spinning, eight, ten, twelve feet into the air before landing in the deep
pit of foam cushions.
Forgive Johnson if he
seems a little defensive about gymnastics. He's fought a lot of battles
on its behalf. While a young athlete at Marblehead High, he received his
first lesson in the world of sports administration and its sometimes myopic
view of gymnastics. He had been training and competing through the YMCA
since the age of ten, but when he and several other students approached
the athletic director about forming a high school gymnastics team they
were flatly denied. It was his first inkling that, in the eyes of some
administrators, gymnastics is a second-class sport. Although one of the
most popular events in the televised Olympics, gymnastics rarely gets
the media attention or financial resources showered on such sports as
football, basketball, and baseball.
Through the influence of his YMCA coach,
Johnson was eventually allowed to enter one meet at Lexington High School,
which qualified him for the 1971 state championships during his senior
year. He finished first in the pommel horse, second in the floor exercise,
and third in all-around score in the state meet; he came to UMass on a
gymnastics scholarship the following year.
But though the team he joined could, he
asserts, have been a national contender, budget cuts forced a scale-back
in the program that very year. Gene Whelan, the squad's best athlete and
a 1976 Olympian, transferred to Penn State, and future scholarships were
cut. Johnson is still disappointed by the lost opportunities for that
team. "One administration makes one decision, and it's taken twenty-five
years to get back to where we were," he says.
Twenty-five years after Johnson graduated
from UMass, and twenty-three years after he returned to pursue a master's
in sports management and coach gymnastics, his team is once again competing
with the nation's best. Last year the Minutemen gymnasts won their first
ever ECAC team championship, led by Jeff LaVallee's first place in the
all-around competition. LaVallee later placed sixth at the NCAA national
While few high schools now offer competitive
gymnastics, the sport's torch is carried by the private sector, where,
according to Johnson, young athletes have access to better coaching and
facilities. LaVallee began training with Olympic gold medalist Tim Daggett,
at his Agawam club, at the age of thirteen. Now in the prime of his gymnastics
life at age twenty-four, LaVallee's broad shoulders, thick chest, and
bulging biceps are evidence of those years of nonstop training and competition
in a sport where athletes must tumble, leap, and calmly balance the weight
of their bodies on their outstretched arms.
After graduating from high school in Connecticut
in 1995, LaVallee took his routines on the road with the USA Junior National
team, learning the ropes of international competition. He qualified for
the '96 Olympic trials, but when he failed to make the team he decided
to pursue another goal: higher education. Having spent so much time raveling
with the junior national team, LaVallee wanted to attend college close
to home and close to his mentor, Daggett. So the choice of UMass - now
winner of eleven consecutive New England men's gymnastics titles - was
In recruiting LaVallee, Johnson not only
added an accomplished athlete to his team, but got the services of Daggett
as volunteer assistant coach during LaVallee's freshman season. "Jeff
has done for me and our program what Camby did for Calipari and UMass
basketball," says Johnson.
As Johnson's UMass teams have
risen through the NCAA ranks from respectable, to strong, to dominant
in the East, so, too, has his reputation risen as a coach, administrator
and devout supporter of the sport. And Johnson has used the opportunity
to help insure the future of men's collegiate gymnastics.
In 1996, the NCAA's executive committee
planned to eliminate a number of national collegiate championships because
of low participation among member schools. Using his influence as president
of the College Gymnastics Association, Johnson helped draft and pass NCAA
legislation that preserved such championships in all Olympic sports.
Indeed, the number of NCAA institutions
supporting competitive men's gymnastics has dropped considerably, from
136 in 1978 to just twenty-six in 1999. Although it's a sticky subject,
Johnson asserts that much of the decline can be attributed to Title IX
compliance at the nation's colleges and the resulting growth in women's
"We felt that women's sports should
definitely have equal opportunities," Johnson says. "But not
at the expense of men's sports."
Now the U.S. Olympic Committee has joined
the cause. Realizing that campuses can provide good training facilities
as well as good educations, the USOC gave the NCAA $8 million in 1998
to boost the quality and visibility of gymnastics at the college level.
The share of the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference which includes
UMass, Temple, Army, and Navy, among others was $1.5 million; the
money and the sponsorship of the UMass Alumni Association allowed the
conference to televise last year's championship meet at the Mullins Center.
Johnson is all for anything that counters
the old, myopic view of a sport that only catches the public's attention
every four years. This effort to fund the sport at the college level,
he thinks, will continue, as the USOC retreats from a centralized training
system developed in the '70s and '80s in response to competitive programs
in the Soviet Union and China.
"We tried to copy programs of other
countries," Johnson says. "But, you know, it's the American
way for kids to go to college and to train in college."
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