By Bill Kirk
---- — Practicing in the gym five hours a day is hard enough.
But when the state organization overseeing high school athletics decided to pull the varsity label from boys gymnastics earlier this year, Brian Manning was not a happy tumbler.
“I thought it was extremely unfair,” Manning said. “To be honest, it’s a sport you have to start when you’re young, but many people don’t get interested in it until later. Just when they got interested in it, they couldn’t do it.”
Hearing pleas from athletes like Manning, who was named the 2013 state gymnast of the year, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association late last week decided to reinstate boys gymnastics as a varsity sport, pleasing coaches, athletes and many others.
Steve Sirois, coach of the Andover High School boys gymnastics team that won the state championship this year, testified at the MIAA board’s bimonthly meeting in Franklin last Thursday in an effort to convince its members that the sport deserved the varsity label.
He joined the state’s six other high school gymnastics coaches, along with the athletic directors from the seven school districts that offer boys gymnastics. Five alumni gymnasts from around the state accompanied them at the meeting.
“We all got a voice,” Sirois said. “We were very well-received. We weren’t pointing fingers at anybody. We just came to talk about our sport and how important it was and what a great beginning it could be for a young man.”
He said the MIAA board members seemed impressed with the coaches and athletic directors, including Andover’s Don Doucette, as well as the student-athletes who spoke.
“They saw that we had class and passion for the sport,” Sirois said.
In January, the MIAA voted to discontinue recognition of gymnastics as a varsity sport, starting next year. According to MIAA spokesman Paul Wetzel, the national governing board of high school athletics had made a determination that because only a half-dozen states in the country field boys gymnastics teams, they would no longer promulgate rules for the sport.
After that, the MIAA decided to delist boys gymnastics as a varsity sport because board members didn’t want to be in the position of having the association write its own set of rules for it.
During last week’s meeting, board members listened to the testimony and then had a lengthy discussion about who would write the rules governing boys gymnastics. Wetzel said the board agreed to work with the National Federation of High School Sports Associations to find an organization willing to write rules.
“A number of national organizations will propose rules for high schools,” he said.
Once they determined that the issue of the rules could be resolved, the board voted unanimously in favor of pinning the varsity label back onto boys gymnastics.
“I was thrilled,” said Manning, who led the Warriors to the state championship. “It’s such a good sport for the athletic development of kids. Gymnastics is a good basis for kids and teaches them determination and discipline. What we have to go through every day, five-hour practices, is hard enough.”
Manning, also a Junior Olympics competitor, said gymnastics helped open doors for him when he was applying to colleges.
“I’m going to Penn. State for Div. 1 gymnastics,” he said. “It made my decision. It made the whole decision. I was recruited by them. It’s the reason I’m going there. I would have gone somewhere local otherwise.”
Because of a bicep injury, Manning said he would “red-shirt” his first year, making him eligible for four more years of college gymnastics after his freshman year. He is headed to Penn. State in a couple of weeks “to get the best medical attention possible.”
But he will miss his years as a high school athlete.
“People don’t realize it’s a team sport,” he said. “In high school, you compete against other towns and other schools.”