The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

Few if any athletes forge a tighter bond than gymnasts. Theirs is a world where everybody seems to know everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Division I athlete or a youngster in your first year of tumbling. In the most positive sense, gymnastics is something of a cult sport.

Most of us have probably hit a baseball or softball, shot a basketball or raced on foot against someone. However, very few of us have the physical skills to spring off a vault, stay upright on a balance beam, do a handstand atop uneven bars or attempt multiple flips in a floor exercise.

We watch and admire those who perform those routines well. The insiders, though, take special pride in seeing one of their own succeed at the highest level of the sport—the Summer Olympics. Accordingly, there were a lot of local celebrations last month when Saint Paul native Suni Lee and Isanti’s Grace McCallum returned from Japan with medals.

Doug Byrnes was one of those insiders who watched Lee and McCallum with pride. Byrnes has been the head coach since 1999 at Hamline University—one of just four colleges in Minnesota that offer women’s gymnastics. He also runs Spirit Gymnastics, which trains youngsters ages 2-18 in the sport.

“We’re all in this together,” Byrnes said. “Gymnasts are a compliant breed to work with. Sure, they all want to win their event, but they thrive on the competition.”

“If you want to be an Olympian, you probably have to start by age 4,” Balzart said, “but you can still start as a freshman and become a good high school gymnast.”

 

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Kathy Balzart, who has been guiding the fortunes of Highland Park High School gymnastics since 2006, agreed that the bond between coach and athlete in her sport is unique. “I’m often called their second mom,” she said of her gymnasts. “I have one former gymnast—she’s 42 now—who still comes to meets.”

Balzart is hopeful that seeing Lee earn gold on television will inspire others to take up the sport. “If you want to be an Olympian, you probably have to start by age 4,” she said, “but you can still start as a freshman and become a good high school gymnast.”

She should know. The Scots, a perennial power in the Saint Paul City Conference (they took first place 18 of the last 19 years), won the Section 4A championship in 2021 and advanced to the state tournament for the second year in a row.

Lee didn’t start her career in Byrnes’ Spirit Gymnastics, but he has known about her for years. “She came from a gym where the coaching was very solid,” Byrnes said. “This is a very coach-dependent sport. The gymnast has to trust the coach and the coach has to reciprocate.”

The Land of 10,000 Lakes has quietly become something of a hotbed for gymnastics. Here’s just partial evidence:

  • Maggie Nichols, a native of Little Canada, was a three-time NCAA champion at Oklahoma.
    • Lee will compete this year at Auburn.
  • McCallum, who will be at Target Center on October 13 as part of the Gold Over America Tour (featuring Simone Biles), will compete for Utah.
  • Lexy Ramler, a member of the Gophers gymnastics team, was the 2021 AA1 Award winner, gymnastics’ equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
  • And Balzart reports that most of her classes for aspiring gymnasts are filled this fall.

While the hope is the success of athletes like Lee and others will inspire more young girls, Byrnes offered some advice that rings true for every sport. “To get to the highest level, you have to be a risk taker,” he said. As the gymnasts noted above have shown, it can be rewarding to be one of them.

UST basketball schedules have new look

In the past, scheduling nonconference basketball games was easy for University of Saint Thomas men’s coach John Tauer. With the MIAC playing 20 games, Tauer had a ready list of standbys to choose from for his allotment of five nonconference games. “You had Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Wisconsin-River Falls, Northwestern and a couple of other nearby schools to talk to,” he said. “I’d mix in a two-game road trip to California or Washington and that was it.”

In the past, practice always started on October 15. There would be a scrimmage or two and the first games would take place in mid- to late November.

All that changed when Saint Thomas jumped to the world of Division I athletics. Tauer and his charges are already spending a limited time in the gym. On September 29, real practices will start. On November 9, UST will head east to face Chicago State for its first Division I game—one of a dozen nonconference games that are intended to get the Tommies ready for life in the Summit Conference. Those 18 conference battles will begin on December 20 at Nebraska (Omaha), followed by a trip to Denver two days later. The first league game on the Tommies’ home court is against Western Illinois on New Year’s Day. Five days later, Oral Roberts, the team that flattened Ohio State in the NCAA tournament last March, comes calling.

“There are a lot of variables involved now,” Tauer said. Mike Maker, who joined Tauer’s staff last year, was the head coach at D-I Marist for four years. He did most of the spadework on the nonconference schedule. The slate includes a trip to New York to play Saint Francis and Fordham, a weekend in Ohio that includes dates with Youngstown State, Niagara University and Southern Illinois, and a trip to Seattle to take on the alma mater of a fellow who started his Hall of Fame NBA career in Minneapolis—Elgin Baylor.

“Part of a schedule is getting out to larger cities to be seen,” Tauer said. “Playing in Chicago, Seattle and New York will be a big deal.”

As a new kid on the D-I block, the Tommies had to reach out to schools for games. It started with an introduction as to who they were and then seeing if they could fit into their potential opponents’ calendar.

“Everybody has their own routine at that time of year,” Tauer discovered. “Some want to play every three days or so. Some wanted a certain type of opponent.”

It took Maker several months, but eventually the task was complete. The nonconference dozen includes a road game against a Drake team that went 26-5 and won a first-round contest in last year’s NCAA tournament. It also includes a home game against a Montana State team that knocked out the top seed in the Big Sky Conference tournament before falling in the championship game. Two local D-III foes—Northland (Wisconsin) and North Central (Minnesota)—make December appearances at UST.

UST women’s basketball head coach Ruth Sinn went through a similar routine. Her nonconference slate starts with a game at Wisconsin on November 10. Three days later, the first home game is against an Illinois State team that won 19 games last year. Later foes vary from a trip to South Carolina State (1-9 before the season was halted) to playing at Cal Poly (13-11) and hosting a Northern Iowa team that won 17 games last year, including three in the women’s NIT. Northland and D-II member Upper Iowa make December trips to Saint Paul.

“You want to be competitive,” Tauer said. “At the same time, you want to explore new opportunities.”

Dave Wright can be reached at dwright53@msn.com

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