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Gymnastics supporters in Sioux Falls high schools worry sport is under threat

Rapid City recently dropped gymnastics which has prompted concern about its future in state's largest district, where numbers are also down.

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Sophie DeGroot was a member of the Lincoln High School gymnastics team for the 2022-23 season as a seventh grader at Edison Middle School in Sioux Falls.
Contributed / Jen DeGroot

SIOUX FALLS — Parents and supporters of girls gymnastics are raising concerns and rallying support over fears that the Sioux Falls School district will follow the lead of Rapid City and drop the sport as a high school activity.

In the face of dwindling numbers, the Rapid City school board voted last month to discontinue gymnastics.

While not as sharp as the West River program, participation has decreased here more than 50% over the past 10 seasons. There were 44 middle and high school gymnasts in Sioux Falls this school year, according to the district.

The Sioux Falls district is just beginning the budget process which will ultimately determine if there are changes in programs. Todd Vik, business manager for the district, warned the school board in November of the potential for a 4% budget reduction over the next four years.

The state Legislature recently approved a 7% increase in overall education spending. What that money means for ongoing programs is what the school board will weigh.

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District spokesperson DeeAnn Kondrad declined to discuss specifics, including whether cuts to gymnastics are under discussion.

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DeeAnn Konrad, community relations coordinator for the Sioux Falls School District.
Contributed

“Any proposed programmatic changes would go through the annual budget process, which is currently underway,” Konrad said in a statement. “The first draft of the (fiscal year 2024) budget will come to the school board at the work session on April 5. The budget is finalized in July.”

But conversations in the gymnastics community and a full-throated social media campaign are driving supporters to communicate their concerns to the school board.

Audra Rew, the long-time head coach of gymnastics at Mitchell High School, is one of the people asking supporters to contact the Sioux Falls district. Rew also owns Mega Gymnastics and is the state chair for USA Gymnastics in South Dakota, which governs the club programs outside of the high schools.

There’s an ongoing discussion about the value of high school sanctioned gymnastics versus the private club programs that operate out of gyms like Mega. But Rew, who is heavily involved in both, says that in many ways they are different experiences.

Club programs are much more focused on the individual athletes, where girls must meet certain standards in all four disciplines. High schools offer a team environment, where the athletes can specialize in one or two areas, such as the balance beam, she said.

Mitchell Head Coach Audra Rew congratulates Emily Moody on her performance on the vault during the Class AA state team gymnastics competition Feb. 9 at the Watertown Civic Arena. (Matt Gade / Republic)
In a 2018 file photo, Mitchell gymnastics coach Audra Rew congratulates Emily Moody on her performance on the vault during the Class AA state team gymnastics competition at the Watertown Civic Arena.
Mitchell Republic file photo

“When you have to go out there and perform for your peers, it’s completely different. That’s what high school gymnastics does,” she said. “It isn’t about the flipping and the twisting, it’s the life lessons that you learn. That’s why we do high school sports.”

Rew is concerned about what Sioux Falls will do in light of elimination of gymnastics in Rapid City. If the state’s largest district — with four high schools — drops the sport as well, that will be a dip in the pool of teams for state competition.

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There are two divisions of competition in South Dakota high school gymnastics, with 15 in each. If Sioux Falls follows Rapid City, that would shrink the big school class to 9. It’s not fair to make the small schools, like West Central or Chamberlain, move up, Rew said.

“I don't know how you would combine to make one class because there is a huge difference,” she said.

Lolly Forseth was the pioneer of girls gymnastics in South Dakota, retiring after stints as head coach at Lincoln and Washington high schools, beginning in 1970.

Forseth’s phone started buzzing with calls and messages as word spread this week. Former athletes and parents are reaching out asking what they can do, she said.

“It hurts,” said Forseth, who spent more than 40 years in the sport as a coach and judge. “It’s very disheartening for me. The sport was one of the first sports for girls in Sioux Falls.”

Gymnastics is one of the sports in South Dakota where students can compete at the varsity level beginning in seventh grade. That’s what Jen DeGroot’s daughter, Sophie, did this season. The Edison Middle Schooler was a member of the Lincoln High School team.

The possibility that the team may not be there is devastating for Sophie, DeGroot said.

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Sophie DeGroot of Sioux Falls competed for the Lincoln High School gymnastics team in the 2022-23 season as a seventh grader.
Contributed / Jen DeGroot

“We sure would love a chance to have another option, to raise money or come up with another option so we could save gymnastics,” DeGroot said.

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Sophie blossomed on the team, showing more confidence and a passion for the sport that she hadn’t previously experienced, DeGroot said. It wasn’t just the physical activity involved, but the supportive atmosphere of the team, she said.

And she questions why gymnastics is getting eliminated rather than sharing the pain with other sports. That’s the message she will bring to the school board’s regular meeting on Monday, March 27. She expects other parents from the Lincoln team to show up as well.

“We are trying to get the word out,” DeGroot said. “We are writing letters to the school board members and making people aware that this is going on.”

The participation numbers aren’t in gymnastics favor, however.

Statistics from the district show that an average of 4.4 students per building were in gymnastics this year, based on four high schools and six middle schools.

Ten years ago, there were 89 students in gymnastics. That number hit a high of 133 in the 2015-16 season and a low of 38 two years ago.

The first public discussion of the budget for next school year will be the school board’s work session on April 5. Then the board will tentatively adopt the framework on April 10. Changes can still be made before the final vote on July 10.

DeGroot, a 1998 Lincoln graduate and former gymnast, hopes there’s still a solution.

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“It’s something that’s been around a long time,” she said. “I certainly didn’t think I had to worry about it not being here.”

Patrick Lalley is the engagement editor and reporter for Sioux Falls Live. Reach him at plalley@siouxfallslive.com.
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