Coach makes a last-minute plea for boys’ gymnastics

Braintree senior Nick Van Alfen on the rings last month at perhaps the last MIAA-sanctioned state championship for boys’ gymnastics.
Braintree senior Nick Van Alfen on the rings last month at perhaps the last MIAA-sanctioned state championship for boys’ gymnastics.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

A gymnastics coach from Braintree High School is scheduled to appear before the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association Thursday to fight for the sport he loves.

Richard Ellis will have three minutes to speak and one goal in mind: Persuade the MIAA’s board of directors to recognize boys’ gymnastics as an official high school sport and reverse its decision to downgrade it to a club activity next season.

The rare move by the MIAA board to drop the sport from its roster of sponsored athletic activities has stirred controversy and drawn harsh criticism from many in the gymnastics world, including coaches, parents, and gymnasts all over the country, including Olympic medalists Aly Raisman, Peter Korman, and Tim Daggett.

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But the MIAA hasn’t budged, and as long as it stands by its Jan. 16 decision, there will be no sanctioned high school gymnastics competitions for boys next season, and no boys’ state championship. Girls’ gymnastics will continue as usual.

MIAA spokesman Paul Wetzel said the group’s decision was driven by low gymnastics participation rates among boys. In August, when the National Federation of State High School Associations announced that it would no longer be writing national rules for boys’ gymnastics, MIAA officials decided to take a closer look at high school-level boys’ gymnastics in Massachusetts. What they found was not promising: Only seven of the 373 high schools in the MIAA had boys’ gymnastics programs.

Wetzel said the MIAA directors considered the issue carefully before making their decision, voting 10-2 to stop recognizing boys’ gymnastics at the end of the 2012-2013 winter season.

“They felt it was no longer something that they should support,” said Wetzel. “There aren’t enough of [boys’ high school gymnastics teams] to warrant running a championship tournament.”

Those seven schools with boys’ teams — Andover, Attleboro, Braintree, Burlington, Lowell, Newton North, and Newton South — can continue to offer boys’ gymnastics as a club sport, said Wetzel. But it will be up to the schools to organize their own competitions and tournaments.

“We weren’t telling those schools they couldn’t have boys’ gymnastics,” said Wetzel. “Part of the decision was the belief by the board that those schools could continue to have boys’ gymnastics and do it as an activity, and continue to do what they’re doing now.”

Boys’ gymnastics is the only sport in recent memory that the MIAA has eliminated from sanctioned competition, according to Wetzel. (Riflery was dropped in the early 1980s, he said.)

The number of boys in Massachusetts competing in MIAA high school gymnastics has remained steady over the past decade, and during the 2011-2012 school year 221 male gymnasts participated. By comparison, there were 97 high schools with girls’ gymnastics teams in the same year, and 1,252 female gymnasts.

MIAA officials argue that their decision could ultimately help boys’ gymnastics because the sport would no longer have to adhere to MIAA rules and restrictions, so it would, in theory, be easier to start boys’ gymnastics club teams at high schools. Area schools could also join forces and combine to form regional co-op teams.

“Several board members said at the time of the vote that it could lead to more participation,” said Wetzel.

But many coaches and gymnasts do not view it as a positive development.

Some high school coaches fear that it might put existing boys’ gymnastics programs at risk of eventually being cut completely, or it could result in more boys’ joining girls’ high school gymnastics teams.

Ellis said the move to demote boys’ gymnastics to club team status goes against the MIAA’s mission to promote programs for student athletes.

He believes the MIAA can boost participation in boys’ gymnastics, if that’s what it wants. He said he remembers when boys’ gymnastics was a staple sport at dozens of high schools around the state. Quincy, Dedham, Milton, and Norwood all had boys’ high school gymnastics teams.

Ellis said his gymnasts at Braintree High are “borderline disappointed” about being removed from MIAA competition.

“I keep saying we’ll be back next year, and we’re going to keep training,” he said. Braintree High gymnastics will “go on, whether the MIAA gives their blessing or not.”

Michael Denise, the athletic director at Braintree High, said the boys’ state championships were held at Braintree High last month, and it was a success. Boys from all seven high schools competed in the tournament, which featured the floor exercise, pommel horse, parallel bars, high bar, still rings, and vault events. But it could well have been the last MIAA-sanctioned state championship for boys’ gymnastics in Massachusetts.

“What I’d like to see is the MIAA board of directors vote to reconsider,” said Denise. “I’d like the board members to really think about what the mission of the MIAA is, and I’d like them to understand how important it is for the MIAA to be supportive of the schools [with boys’ gymnastics teams] and the boys who participate. ”

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