Quiz: What’s the consistently highest-ranked Boise State University athletic program in the last five years?
I’m relentlessly curious about just about anything. But more important, I’m a sucker when it comes to hearing about organizations (and teams) that are high-performing and stay that way.
So when Keita Shimada, a Boise State athletic trainer who works with the gymnastics program, said women’s gymnastics is the highest-ranked Boise State team, that it’s consistently been in the top 25 of the country’s more than 82 Division I, II and III programs (No. 9 or 10 in recent weeks), and that its members have the third-highest grade-point average across the 61 Division I U.S. gymnastics teams, it was like catnip for me. I wanted to know how they’ve done it.
Then I talked to the students and was completely confused.
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Senior Maddie Krentz, mechanical engineering major, wants to be an orthopedic surgeon and has had multiple knee injuries. When she said she came to the university “because I wanted to get better and learn new skills,” I was dumbfounded. Who wouldn’t want learn new skills in college?
But this is a different world.
Gymnasts begin training in preschool, eventually practice five hours a day six days a week, and move up levels (the top level is 10) as they master skills (i.e., tricks) and techniques (i.e., how to do them) on parallel bars, the balance beam and vaults. They master floor routines, which demand different muscle groups, strength (legs versus arms), “air awareness” and “fear factors.”
The first time I watched a practice, one 5’2” blonde athlete went flying off the parallel bars and made a loud smack sound, face down, spread-eagled onto a mat. Ouch. The fear factor for me would be off the charts.
Most elite gymnasts peak in high school, so they specialize in college and stick to the same routines or tricks, perfecting those rather than learning anything new. But the Boise State coaches are known for continuing to build new tricks, techniques and skills in the athletes who want to learn more.
So for the ones who want to continue to learn, like Maddie Krentz, Boise State is the place. The co-head coaches, Tina Bird and Neil Resnick, are legendary in the gymnastics world. Their ability to bring out the best, to “make Boise State history” year after year, and to do it with grace and integrity means young women fight hard to get into the program.
Part of what intrigues me about the program is the perseverance — and creativity — of students and coaches. For Bird’s first year as assistant coach (1990-91), she had to “raise $7,000 of her own salary,” since there wasn’t university money for her. When is the last time you did that?
Then, the group finds ways to get jobs done — big and small — even when they lack resources.
The first day I watched practice, I saw a gymnast swipe chalk on the parallel bars. Coach Neil Resnick raised his eyebrow and leaned over to me. “Yes, that’s what you think it is: a toilet brush,” he said. “We have to get creative here. And it’s a great way to spread chalk.”
Constant learning, perseverance, creativity. Not bad for any organization to build into its operations. But this weekend you can take a break and go watch one organization soar.
Watch the women’s gymnastics team at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19, as it meets Ohio State at Taco Bell Arena. Tickets are $6 for adults and $4 for children and senior citizens. For information, go to www.broncosports.com/tickets/