My connection to gymnastics is watching a 14-year-old Bulgarian girl do backflips once every four years. Turns out, I’m not the only one.
I found this on the CBS College Sports Web page: “In 1969 approximately 230 collegiate gymnastics programs existed. Today, only 19 (men’s) NCAA programs remain in the U.S.” Listen up, people, there’s been a plague, a national die-off of male gymnasts.
* * *
I have Edward Franz on the phone. “Wanted to talk to you about gymnastics at San Diego State.”
Franz says, “Well, what’s going on at San Diego State is that there are zero gymnastics.”
According to Franz’s Web page, he’s been teaching at SDSU since 1965. The page notes the usual publications list, professional associations, and then, “The SDSU Aztec Gymnastics Program is completing its 37th year of continuous operation under my direction. As one of the auxiliary programs in the Department of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, the Aztec Gymnastics Program continues to serve the youth of the San Diego community.”
“We used to have,” Franz says, “and for 39 years I had, what was called the Aztec Gymnastics Club. It was a community-based program where we trained young gymnasts and competed nationally.”
Sounds good. “I read there were 230 collegiate gymnastic programs in 1969 and 19 men’s programs today.”
Franz says, “Yeah, gymnastics have declined drastically over the years.”
“Primarily because of the size of facilities that need to be set up permanently for training. The cost of equipment, finding qualified coaches, etcetera, etcetera. In San Diego, you go back a number of years and every high school in San Diego had a boys’ team. Gone. Every junior college in San Diego had a women’s team. Gone. Gymnastics in schools has declined drastically. Men’s NCAA gymnastics is down to a handful of teams. The NCAA doesn’t even sponsor a men’s national meet.
I think, Did gymnastics become uncool? I ask, “Did students stop participating?”
“We had plenty of participants,” Franz says. “You’ve got all these age-group programs around the country, YMCA facilities, private gymnastic centers, cheerleading centers. That’s very, very big. So, we had the numbers, but in the academic environment, gymnastics had a drastic decline. When Title IX came along it was, ‘We’ve got to have more women participating.’ You take a varsity women’s gymnastics team and you’d have 12 girls on that team, compared to a crew team where they’ve got 60 girls for soccer or volleyball. They went for sports that had big numbers.”
Franz spits out the words “big numbers” like a piece of bad meat. I ask, “But, why cut gymnastics? Why not water polo?”
“Setting up a gymnastic meet is a major operation for sports athletic departments. Moving equipment into the big gym, floor systems, bars, beams, mats, blah, blah, blah,” Franz says. “It’s easy to throw a soccer ball out on the field.”
“Do you still run the auxiliary program?”
“Your Web page says, ‘The SDSU Aztec Gymnastics Program is completing its 37th year of continuous operation under my direction.’”
“I was the director of the auxiliary program in gymnastics until 1993.”
“Everything stopped in ’93?”
“Everything stopped, gone. In 1993, the department…the dean…they converted the gym to a 500-seat lecture hall and moved some academic classes to Peterson Gym. Took over the gymnastic facility. And that was the end of that. No gymnastics on this campus since 1993.”
I decide not to pursue the “What’s the deal with your website?” inquiry. Instead I ask, “What have you been doing?”
“Well, I teach full-time in the department; I’m a faculty member. That [gymnastic program] was not part of my faculty assignment, so it didn’t affect my position on campus.”
“Are you involved with amateur gymnastics?”
“I’m no longer involved in gymnastics at all. Not since ’93.”
“Do you follow the sport? Do you know which school has the best team?”
“No, I don’t follow the sport that carefully anymore. I don’t know what the college teams are right now.” Silence. “I was dedicated to that program for 39 years, and it’s hard, all of a sudden, to have somebody hand you a piece a paper that says, ‘You have to clear all the gymnastics equipment out of the gym,’ and give you a couple weeks’ notice to do that. You say, ‘What?’
“It was a very big program. They were primarily girls. There are always more girls involved in gymnastics and cheerleading. We had a very, very active girls team program at all age levels. Lots of recreational kids came. Gym was operating all day on Saturdays, three o’clock to nine, Monday through Friday. And all of a sudden it was gone.
“How many kids did you have in the program?”
“About 900 kids.”