Boys’ gymnastics gets state reprieve

In January, Olympic champion Aly Raisman of Needham tweeted her disappointment about the MIAA decision.
In January, Olympic champion Aly Raisman of Needham tweeted her disappointment about the MIAA decision.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff file/2012

FRANKLIN — Now that the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association has reversed its January decision to eliminate boys’ gymnastics, supporters of the sport say they are looking forward to the upcoming high school season with relief, joy, and a newfound sense of purpose.

“We’re very happy — we’re ecstatic,” Braintree High School gymnastics coach Rich Ellis said after the MIAA board of directors voted Thursday to keep boys’ gymnastics as a sanctioned high school sport.

With the uncertainty over, Ellis and others said they are optimistic about the future of the sport that has produced world beaters in Massachusetts, including Olympic medalists Tim Daggett and Peter Kormann.

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Ellis noted that USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport, has established a task force focused on promoting and expanding boys’ high school gymnastics across the country. He is hopeful the sport will grow and participation among boys will increase in the Bay State.

The MIAA opted in January to downgrade boys’ gymnastics to a club activity after the National Federation of State High School Associations announced it would no longer write national rules for the sport. While girls’ gymnastics would continue as usual, the MIAA would end sanctioned competition for boys and cancel the state championship tournament. MIAA officials cited low participation, saying they found that only seven Massachusetts high schools — Andover, Attleboro, Braintree, Burlington, Lowell, Newton North, and Newton South — had boys’ gymnastics teams.

But the decision immediately sparked an outcry. Gymnastics coaches, student-athletes, parents, and alumni wrote letters and signed petitions urging the MIAA to reconsider.

Olympic champion Aly Raisman tweeted about it. Kormann wrote an editorial. And USA Gymnastics stepped in, proposing a new set of rules and regulations for high school gymnastic programs.

Ellis was among several coaches, gymnasts, and athletic directors who went to the MIAA’s headquarters in Franklin Thursday to speak to its gymnastics committee before the board’s meeting.

Steve Sirois, the gymnastics coach at Andover High School, told the committee that the gymnasts he coached had gone on to attend the Naval Academy and West Point. One former gymnast is now a Navy SEAL.

Mike Denise, the athletic director at Braintree High School, gave each MIAA board member a binder containing the latest high school gymnastics rules put forth by the National Federation of State High School Associations, correspondence showing USA Gymnastics’ commitment to expanding participation in boys’ gymnastics, and other documents supporting their cause.

Evan Burt, a recent graduate of Burlington High School, told the gymnastics committee he never thought about trying gymnastics until he reached high school.

Joining his school’s gymnastics squad was “the best decision I ever made,” he said. “I would not be the person I am today without it.”

Burt said taking away the opportunity for boys to compete in gymnastics would only hurt students. “Hurting even one kid — that’s too many,” he said.

When the MIAA board convened for its meeting at 11 a.m., many in the room held their breath. One MIAA board member noted that the only sport in recent memory to be eliminated by the MIAA was riflery. Did the directors really want boys’ gymnastics to suffer the same fate?

A motion was finally made to reinstate boys’ gymnastics as an MIAA-sponsored sport.

“All in favor?” asked the chairman.

Thirteen members raised their hands.

“Opposed?”

Not a single hand went up.

The coaches and athletic directors smiled and let out a sigh of relief. They shook hands and congratulated one another.

Outside the conference room, Ellis stood in the hallway beaming with one of his recent alums, Nicholas Van Alfen. “I think it was the right decision,” said Van Alfen.

Sirois said all of the students and alumni who wrote letters will be happy to hear about the MIAA’s change of heart.

“The best thing was done. It’s going to be a moral victory to them,” he said. “It’s too important of a sport.”

Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, also applauded the outcome, saying the decision “means that the state’s students will have the opportunity to continue to benefit from gymnastics and pursue their athletic dreams.”

“We commend the passion and dedication of the Massachusetts gymnastics community and its ability to pull together to address the situation, as well as the MIAA for its willingness to listen to them and reconsider its earlier decision,” he said in a prepared statement. “This is a win-win for everyone involved.”