Of the 26 Montgomery County public high schools, Whitman is now one of eight to sponsor a team, thanks in large part to Buxbaum’s efforts. The addition represents growth for a sport facing an uncertain future in the region.
After years of speculation, Anne Arundel County officially shuttered its gymnastics programs with a press release last June, citing declining interest (just five schools fielded teams last year) and aging equipment (most of it dated to the 1980s) as the deciding factors.
The move left Montgomery County, which had 133 athletes on its eight teams to start the spring, as the lone Maryland county to sponsor the sport. County teams had participated in a season-ending Bi-County meet with Anne Arundel to decide a “state champion” but will instead wrap up the year with Tuesday’s county meet at Bethesda-Chevy Chase.
Across Virginia, 873 athletes competed on 77 teams in the winter of 2010, according to the Virginia State High School League’s most recent data. Northern Virginia and the Virginia Beach area represent the sport’s biggest strongholds in the state, but even in those locations, it has faced challenges.
While each participating Montgomery County school has its own equipment and coach, many smaller teams in Northern Virginia share both. Fairfax County planned to cut the sport in a 2009 budget crunch before area athletes, parents and coaches rallied to save it.
The sport might not have survived this long in either state without the dedication of its top athletes. Blake junior Brittany Atkins trains up to 23 hours per week at Fairland gymnastics and squeezes in high school practices.
The returning All-Met’s go-to club vault is considered too dangerous for high school competition. She also uses a modified floor exercise routine because the wrestling mats used in the event aren’t cut out for all that tumbling.
Those concessions seem modest to her in exchange for the chance to represent her school in a more relaxed environment. Most of her club teammates, a majority of whom live in Prince George’s County, don’t get the choice.
“Oh yeah, they ask me about it,” Atkins said. “They’d want to experience the fun part of competing instead of the really serious part all the time.”
Advocates for high school gymnastics point to the unique camaraderie fostered by bringing together athletes of varying abilities. While club gymnasts typically compete only against others of comparable skill level based on a uniform rating system from 1 to 10, all high school competitors in both Virginia and Maryland are measured together.
Certain skills are assigned starting values based on difficulty and then scored from there. (A gymnast who performs a most basic routine flawlessly might score a 7, while an ambitious performer with sophisticated tricks could post a much higher number even with a few minor slip-ups.)
The sport “has such a potential for personal growth,” said Whitman Coach Paul Belliveau, who also helped re-form the team at Blair in 2002. “Regardless of skill level, everyone has the same opportunity to work hard and have that moment they can feel good about.”
As a local gymnast in the early 1990s, Umme Beasley focused on the club circuit, landing a scholarship to West Virginia University. But after coaching Severna Park to two Anne Arundel County titles in the past three seasons, she understands the benefits of high school competition.
Beasley said the Falcons asked for the chance to raise money for new equipment and several local clubs offered free gym time for practice, but it wasn’t enough to overturn the county’s decision.
“Not everybody can really afford to be a gymnast with a club team,” said Beasley, now an assistant at Rutgers University. “High school teams give a chance to compete, to feel that team environment, that might not be there otherwise.”
Whitman’s example stands as a testament to the passion necessary to keep the sport alive. Buxbaum started out needing to make a list of 30 interested girls at her school. She secured Paul Belliveau as coach and then a promise for used equipment from local clubs.
When told new equipment was necessary, she helped mobilize fundraising efforts to cover the three major pieces required — a balance beam, a vault and uneven bars. With help from the school’s athletic boosters and athletic department, the team came up with the roughly $20,000 needed.
The Vikings finished fifth at last season’s county meet and took another step forward this spring, hosting their first home meet in more than a decade.
“You can see the support so much better now,” Buxbaum said. “It’s a completely different type of pressure when you see your friends watching as opposed to just your family and your coaches” at club meets.