The London Olympics had women's U.S. gymnastics on nearly everyone's mind at some point this summer. In the fall that interest should show itself locally when Summit High School fields its first girls gymnastics team. "We hope this year's SHS Hilltopper gymnasts watched [the Olympics] and were inspired," said one of the new coaches, Summit resident Tracy Claus.
Patch had a chance to ask Claus a few questions about the program, which became a reality through the efforts of parents and the dedication of gymnasts who previously competed with the Summit Summies team at the Connection.
I take it you're a gymnastics buff. What did you think of Team USA's performance?
Tracy Claus: The US team looked amazing at the Olympics this year. The women's team was one of the strongest ever assembled, and due to the limits put it place by the IOC (limiting teams to 5 girls for qualification rounds, 3 girls for team finals, and 2 girls for event finals), it is reasonable to assume that the US 2nd or 3rd teams would have done almost as well. The US left athletes at home who could have won medals at the Olympics --- the women's team was THAT strong.
This is the first gymnastics team for Summit High School, what's the interest like?
Tracy Claus: We expect to have a roster of 13 girls. We have been in touch with interested athletes since last spring and have been working to determine who will have the minimum skills necessary to be on the team. Summit High School has never had a girls' gymnastics team before.
Should we expect Hilltopper uniforms?
Tracy Claus: Gymnasts will wear a team uniform. We have ordered custom burgundy and gold leotards, and team jackets.
What made you think creating a varsity gymnastics program was a good idea?
Tracy Claus: As the past president of the Summit Summies Parents Organization, we found that girls had a lot of success in their younger years, but had little to aspire to as they got older. The Summies have between 60-75 competitive athletes on the team, and we believed that many of them would be interested in a high school team.
This new team will be a source of aspriation for younger athletes. Something to have as a long-term goal. Gymnastics is a great sport. It combines strength, flexibility, bravery and mental toughness. An athlete who is self-motivated can go very far if she wants.
How did this become a reality: a Summit High School Gymnastics team?
Tracy Claus: Frankie Degen, also a life-long gymnast who competed privately in Massachusetts and at her high school, and I made a formal presentation to the Board of Education outlining our proposal to coach the girls as volunteers.
Mike Sandor, Summit High School Athletics Director was also integral in his support of our program from the beginning. All these factors came together to enable the school board to approve us as an unfunded team.
The SHS Athletics department provides standard insurance for all athletes, but it is not an additional cost for gymnastics.
Since this is an "unfunded" program, how is it getting paid for and how much will this cost parents?
Tracy Claus: We are relying 100% on the Summit Boosters to defray the expenses of our team. We have submitted a grant request to them to cover the cost of uniforms and [gymnastics] meet fees.
Parents will have to pay for training costs. The high school gymnastics program at The Connection is being offered at a tremendous discount. Training fees are $210 for the season. If we don't get Boosters support for our uniforms, those will cost approximately $150 each. We don't anticipate other significant costs for parents, but time will tell.
So, the Connection will be the prime facility for Hilltopper gymnastics?
Tracy Claus: The major hurdle to having a varsity team in Summit was the lack of a gymnastics facility at the high school. We worked with Tracy Burkholder, director of gymnastics at The Connection, and Peggy Hagen, Executive Director of The Connection, to find a solution where SHS athletes will practice and compete at The Connection's pre-existing facility. It provides state-of-the-art equipment at an in-town location.
What was it like to get the Board of Education's green light to create your team?
Tracy Claus: Frankie and I were thrilled to have the BOE approve our team. We've been talking about it for a really long time, and to have it finally a reality is incredible. Both Frankie and I competed for private teams growing up.
Gymnastics is typically an individual sport where your success is for you alone. High School gymnastics is almost entirely team-based, and it gives gymnasts the opportunity to be on a real team for the first time.
We were fortunate to have Laurie McCormack, an 8th grade teacher from the Summit Middle School, hear about the new team and volunteer. Laurie was a very high level gymnast who competed both privately and for Westfield High School.
You're going to be one of the three coaches for this inaugural high school team. What's your background in the sport?
Tracy Claus: I have been involved with gymnastics for my whole life. I was a competitive gymnast in Illinois and NJ as a child, I competed for Hunterdon Central High School in Flemington) and then I went on to compete Division I gymnastics in college at the University of Pittsburgh.
I've been involved in gymnastics in Summit for 8 years through my daughters' participation in the recreational and the Summit Summies competitive team offered at the Connection.
Can you talk about your goals for the season?
Tracy Claus: The three coaches have two goals for this first year: To have our athletes compete safely, and to have fun.
We have a lot to learn about high school gymnastics in the county and the state. We don't know how complicated it will be to run this team at an outside location. We have no idea what type of competition we will face in Union County or in our Section.
We have several individual athletes who might be able to reach post-season competition, but that is not our primary objective. We want to let each one of our athletes, from the most beginner to the most advanced compete as Hilltoppers, earn Varsity Letters for their school, cheer for the team, and win or lose as a unified group.
I took gymnastics as a kid. What about the boys?
Tracy Claus: Our team will be only for girls. NJ High Schools no longer provide competitive gymnastics for boys. The Connection offers recreational gymnastics for boys, but does not have dedicated equipment for boys' gymnastics. Other private clubs in the area would be the only option for a boy interested in gymnastics.
You're a Summit mom, and a Summit High School sports coach. Will you be coaching any of your daughters on the team?
Frankie and I don't have any of our own girls on the team this year. They aren't old enough to be in high school. Three of my four daughters are on the Summies. Two of Frankie's daughters are on the team. My youngest daughter is only 4. Too young!
The high school will start classes soon. When can we expect to see some Hilltopper gymnastics action?
Tracy Claus: SHS Gymnastics begins officially on September 4th with our first season practice. Girls will practice 4 days a week. The regular season runs until the end of October.
Our first meet is September 11th at 6:30pm at The Connection for Women and Families at 79 Maple Street.
There is post-season for individuals and teams who qualify. The Sectional championship meet is at the beginning of November. For teams and individuals who qualify, State Championship meet is mid-November.