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Bouncing Back
UMass men's gymnastics is off and running


Photo: Men's gym team and trophy

Back to where we were": Roy Johnson and his Minuteman gymnasts with the ECAC trophy they won last year.
 

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 high bar.

     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 championships.

     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 a natural.

     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 sports budgets.

     "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."

– Ben Barnhart

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