Sioux Falls high school gymnasts fear district will cut the sport

Published: Mar. 22, 2023 at 10:37 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - There’s a growing fear among middle school and high school gymnasts in Sioux Falls.

It comes after the Rapid City school board voted last month to discontinue the sport, citing low numbers.

Now there are rumblings that the Sioux Falls School District will follow suit and cut the activity from its budget next year. The first draft of that budget will be presented at a work session on April 5.

One member of the local gymnastics community said the school board should brace for a large and boisterous contingency traveling from all over the state to be at the next Sioux Falls School Board meeting on Monday. The future of prep gymnastics is not on the agenda, but Reiners said members of the gymnastics community will speak about why the sport should be saved in the Sioux Falls public schools.

“If you want to see a group of people that will rally as quick as humanly possible, this is the group that is going to do it,” said Alicia Reiners, the owner of Wings Gymnastics Academy in Sioux Falls.

“The biggest concern for all of us is, outside of Sioux Falls losing gymnastics, is if we lose Sioux Falls, and we’ve already lost Rapid, at what point does the state decide to pull this from all of us?”

On Wednesday, SDHSAA executive director Dan Swartos told Dakota News Now that dropping gymnastics as a statewide sanctioned sport is “not on our radar at all. I don’t see any possibility of that.” He also said high school gymnastics participation across the state has been “steady” over the last 10 years. There were 246 participants this past year, up from 231 a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the Sioux Falls School District told Dakota News Now on Monday that it would not allow interviews on the topic.

But SFSD communications director DeeAnn Konrad did make sure to provide DNN with district gymnastics participation stats from the last decade, which point out that 8.3 students per city high school competed in the sport this year, and that’s a dip of almost 60 percent from 10 years ago, when the number was 20.3.

“The rate of participation in the sport of gymnastics has consistently declined over the past several years,” Konrad wrote in an e-mail to DNN. “SFSD now has 4 high schools and 6 middle schools. A total of 44 MS and HS students compete in school gymnastics across the city, resulting in an average of 4.4 student participants per school - the lowest in a 12-year history.”

Reiners doesn’t think those numbers are a fair assessment.

“Covid had a lot to do with it at the time,” Reiners said. “It’s hard to keep athletes in the gym. This is not a sport that you can take a huge amount of time off of, and come back OK.”

Indeed, according to the SFSD data sent to DNN, the number of participants on high school gymnastics teams in Sioux Falls high schools in 2020 was 63 in the 2019-20 school year.

That number plummeted to 38 the next school year, which was the first after the pandemic. Vaccines were not widely available until deep into that season. Post-vaccines, the number rose to 57 participants in 2021-22, but dipped back to 44 this season.

Reiners — whose academy has 750 gymnasts ranging from “just learning how to crawl” to 18 years old — is also an assistant gymnastics coach at Harrisburg High School. She has as much of a pulse on local youth gymnastics as anyone, and she expects the interest level in high school-sanctioned participation to shoot back up.

“99 percent of the kids that walk in my door and join my competitive team would go on and do high school gymnastics,” Reiners said. “Only 1 percent of them are trying to get a (college) scholarship.”

Those elite-level gymnasts, Reiners said, compete at the club level. That season partly coincides with the SDHSAA season. Some of her gymnasts compete in club, then leave it for the high school season, then go back to club once the prep season is over.

The logic Reiners figures that proponents of slashing high school-sanctioned gymnastics will have is that the club level would still be an available avenue for middle school and high school gymnasts who want to compete in the sport.

But Reiners and one of her high school gymnasts said taking away the prep-sanctioned version of the sport would be a major loss because the school-sanctioned version generates a team environment, which cannot be duplicated in the indivdual-oriented club scene.

Eva Knudtson just wrapped up her senior season at Lincoln High School. After having Olympic dreams as a pre-adolescent gymnast, Knudtson realized she loved the sport, but wasn’t going to make it her life’s work to reach the highest level. So, she chose competing for Lincoln instead of Wings or another club in town.

”For all of the middle schoolers who just joined my team, I would be so heartbroken if they weren’t able to undergo that five or six years of character development that I was able to go through,” Knudtson said.

Asked to describe the essence of team gymnastics at the SDHSAA level versus club competition, Knudtson said, “It fosters empathy — being able to go into a safe place with people that you trust and people that you’re vulnerable around.

“They’re surrounded by the same people in the same safe space, where they can be just who they need to be around each other, while also participating in a collective, difficult, mentally stimulating sport.”

Reiners said high school-sanctioned gymnastics, unlike the club level, also teaches kids to learn how to deal with their failures while still supporting others on their team. As a coach, the most important thing for her to teach her athletes is how to deal with disappointment.

“Still getting back up and cheering their teammates on, and being OK with not being put on an event,” Reiners said, “which means they just have to work harder and not get mad at the people that beat them out.

“That’s all real life. That happens when you’re out in the workforce. You have to put your best foot forward. You can’t get angry. You can’t get snotty. You have to figure out how to make yourself better to contribute more.”

Knudtson said all of those lessons have formed her into a more well-rounded person, who is balancing school and gymnastics with her job as a coach for Reiners at Wings.

“It is so unique in its vulnerability and be able to kind of put yourself out there and be judged for every single little thing you’re doing,” Knudtson said. “And then looking at that score and being OK with it no matter what it was, and being able to go back to practice and fixing that, and making yourself a better gymnast and a better person.”

Yes, club gymnastics can do that, too. But saving some money in the school district budget by denying student-athletes like Knudtson the opportunity for a more team-oriented and, admittedly, “relaxed” level of competition would be a big mistake, Reiners said.

“These kids who have put their heart and soul and all of their time for their whole lives will usually get to a spot where they want to be involved in their school,” Reiners said. “But they don’t want to be in the gym 20 hours a week, and they want to have a life. But now, they wouldn’t have that opportunity. They don’t get to continue with the sport that they love while being a teenager, while being a high schooler.”