High school gymnastics appears to be at a crossroads in Anchorage.
With aging equipment, shrinking budgets and declining participation, the sport as it’s currently organized isn’t likely to have a lasting future.
A presentation at an Anchorage School District budget work session in October reported participation in high school gymnastics is at historically low rates with just 53 student-athletes competing last year. The district said there hasn’t been more than 100 in total for a single season in the past five years.
As the school district reviews major cost-drivers, administrators identified gymnastics as a high-cost extracurricular activity with scant participation. While they haven’t recommended specific program cuts yet, gymnastics was presented as a possibility based on those factors.
There are currently only two fully equipped gyms in district high schools — at Chugiak and Dimond.
Local coaches say the lack of funding for new equipment and transportation hurdles to those gyms has stunted the growth of the sport and restricted which student-athletes can participate.
“A very big problem we’re facing in our district right now is that due to how expensive equipment is,” Dimond coach Stephanie Collins said. “East, West, Dimond and Service all practice here (at Dimond).”
Bartlett and Eagle River practice at Chugiak, and South is the lone school in the district to hold practice at Arctic Gymnastics.
Collins said a certified gymnastics floor alone costs around $60,000.
Students in gymnastics are often responsible for finding their own means of transportation to and from practice, and meets when buses aren’t available. For students participating in a sport with universal in-school facilities, like basketball, that isn’t as much of an issue.
But a shortage of bus drivers has also been an ongoing issue in the district this school year.
Collins, a former Dimond gymnast who graduated in 2012, recalls an era when nearly every school would host its own meets.
“Back in the day before my time, every school had equipment and meets happened at every school,” Collins said. “But now, because new equipment needs to be bought, they’re like, ‘Well, you can just go practice at Dimond and you guys can go practice at Chugiak.’ ”
While the Lynx have a well-stocked roster, the same can’t be said for several of the other programs outside of South, which is a perennial powerhouse in the sport.
Many of the other schools’ teams are smaller, with only a few student-athletes. And club programs are often the preference for top-tier gymnasts, where they can get more intensive training and coaching.
Bartlett has just two gymnasts, which is double what they had last year.
“It’s grown slowly,” coach Holly Adkins said. “Last year, we only had one Bartlett girl, and we’ve doubled our size to two.”
Adkins and her daughter Elle coach all three of the northern teams in the district — Bartlett, Eagle River and Chugiak.
Not being in the schools as a teacher is one of the biggest hurdles that gymnastics coaches face when trying to bring in more athletes, according to Holly Adkins.
“If you were there, you could be grabbing kids that you see, and then also the most successful girls are already doing gymnastics at a club level,” she said.
With only two fully equipped gyms in the Anchorage School District, getting to practice or meets often requires extra coordination and planning.
Adkins and her daughter often have to pick up students from their respective schools or homes.
Roey Armstrong has been on the Bettye Davis East High gymnastics team for three years and is getting her driver’s license this month. While the junior usually either carpools or has one of her parents drop her off at practice and meets, she believes the lack of access to transportation scares away potential students who might be interested in joining the team.
“I definitely think that’s a big part of it,” she said. “I got a lot of questions about whether there’s a school bus or why the practices weren’t at East.”
But low participation has been a trend at the school for many years. The additional two teammates give the Thunderbirds the biggest roster they’ve had since she joined the team. Prior to her freshman year, East didn’t field a team for five years.
Adkins has been involved with Chugiak gymnastics since her daughter was in high school in 2015, and she remembers when Bartlett, Eagle River and Chugiak gymnastics were once three very separate programs.
“Bartlett used to have their own coach, and Chugiak had a really thriving program but that coach retired,” Adkins said. “It’s really hard to find somebody with the skill level and the time for the compensation to be a head coach for gymnastics.”
Adkins thinks having more coaching clinics could inspire more former gymnasts to get involved with coaching and continue to grow the sport statewide. Adkins also believes having the sport available at the high school level is important to the district being compliant with Title IX and hopes it doesn’t go away.
“The equipment is expensive, our infrastructure is kind of unraveling, and every year that adds some pressure,” Adkins said.
The sport is sanctioned by Alaska School Activities Association, but there’s no state meet because it doesn’t meet that organization’s criteria. To meet that standard, there would need to be more statewide participation, and now it’s consolidated around Anchorage.
Dan Alch has been coaching gymnastics for 40 years, and has spent the last 20 years coaching at Arctic Gymnastics in Anchorage.
He doesn’t know of any particular reason why participation at the high school level isn’t as high as it has been in the past, but he admits the sport itself isn’t easy for someone to just jump right in and excel at.
“It’s hard, it’s a lot of work, so the kids have to come in and do a lot of work to be competitive,” Alch said.
As a full-time gymnastics coach, he understands the kind of financial investment it takes to furnish a gymnasium for the sport and thinks consolidation of equipment and resources in the district makes sense.
“I think it’s kind of nice because they don’t have to buy six sets of each thing, so it’s a little less on the investment,” Alch said.
From his perspective, participation in the sport at the club level is still high. While he can’t speak for other gyms around the city, Alch encourages his gymnasts to participate in the high school season because it prepares them for the club season.
“Our main season is January to March, so this is kind of like a preseason,” he said. “They can take a rest between the end of the high school season, reboot, and get ready for the club side.”
The Anchorage School District said it may explore outsourcing sports where there’s already a corresponding program. The model for that would be baseball, which is operated by American Legion.
But current club programs might not have the necessary infrastructure to incorporate the high school programs.
Despite the constraints, there’s still plenty of enthusiasm for the sport in the high school ranks.
Collins believes that this year’s Dimond team has the most collective talent that the program has ever had.
“Normally, we have girls that have never done it before and they have to start from the basics,” Collins said. “We have girls coming in with the basics done, so we’re able to come in and thrive and jump in and go.”
Armstrong, at Bettye Davis East High, has been in gymnastics since she was a freshman, and has been dancing since she was 10 years old.
The Thunderbirds had just two gymnasts on last year’s team, and Armstrong was nearly the only one on the team this year. But she was able to convince two more students who also come from a dance background to join.
“I got my dance teacher to ask everyone, and I kept asking around,” Armstrong said.
A common misconception she faced during the recruiting process is other girls questioning whether they’d be able to compete in any of the events without any prior gymnastics experience.
“You don’t have to know anything, that’s why you learn and there’s four different events so there has to be something you can do,” Armstrong tells skeptical classmates. “Even if you can’t compete, you can still go be on the team.”