When the numbers finally dwindled to a point where there were two middle schoolers who competed in one event each in the final meet of the 2015-16 season, Edgemont High School did what many other schools had done in the 1990s and early 2000s — it cut out its varsity gymnastics program the following school year.
Edgemont gymnastics had been kept alive for decades by the coaching duo of Cindy Moeller and Mary Raciborski, who retired from the sport following the 2003-04 season. There were more than 30 teams in Section 1 in the 1980s, fewer than 20 when Moeller and Raciborski retired and 10 when Edgemont shuttered its program just over a decade later.
In order to save the program to even get to 2016, Edgemont had been part of mergers since 2012-13, teaming up with schools like Briarcliff, Eastchester and Westlake. Edgemont served as the home base for the team at a time when they were still sharing the San Marco Gymnasium with the growing wrestling program.
The coaching carousel was in full effect starting in 2004-05 with Elizabeth Alotbelli for two seasons, Jillian Grey for two, Jenn Dooley for one, Lindsay Robinson for one, then-athletic director Ray Pappalardi for one, Nicole Robbins for one, Pappalardi and Katie-Anne Hengel for one and Hengel for two.
That final year Eastchester had four postseason qualifiers from its senior class and Hengel and Eastchester knew the program was gone after that season. Eastchester was potentially returning three girls, Westlake one and Edgemont two middle schoolers, Zaza Aslanian and Allison Hallowell, but with no lead team, no coach and nowhere to practice, Edgemont closed the book on gymnastics.
Or so it thought.
Last winter, the athletic department allowed for a pilot gymnastics program, which did not compete. It ran after the Tuesday and Thursday Edgemont Recreation afterschool gymnastics program at Seely Place Elementary School and was run by Kathryn Martell. This year Edgemont upgraded to a competitive program.
With Carmel closing its doors to gymnastics this winter, Edgemont replaced them in Section 1 to keep the number of programs at nine (with Scarsdale, Suffern, Somers, Lakeland, Wappingers, Brewster, Ossining, Clarkstown).
Anthony DeRosa’s first year back at Edgemont as athletic director happened to be that final year of the gymnastics program. DeRosa said interest meetings the next two years yielded the same result — a lack of interest for such a specialized program as far as equipment, training and safety.
That all changed when parent Gary Bologh decided to push the issue. The first year the program was shut down was the year Bologh’s daughter, Kailey, would have been eligible to compete with the team as a seventh-grader. The next year he started doing some digging and met with the superintendent, athletic director and the principal to see if there was some way to revive the program.
Last year, at 5:30 p.m. twice a week, and with limited equipment — looking more like a kids’ play place than a gymnastics gym — Edgemont gymnastics began its rebirth with Martell coaching the girls at Seely.
“I sort of became a crusader of making a team and getting it back up,” Bologh said. “I knew there was a number of girls who were doing the sport.”
Bologh said he was left to do all of the legwork for this reborn program, including gauging interest and finding a coach. He found out late fall last year that it was a go and later on that season a day each week was added at GymCats so the girls could have the experience of using real gymnastics equipment.
“I felt like I was an assistant coach I was doing so much,” Bologh said. “I was basically running the pilot program last year. It was a good story in that it had a happy ending as we tried to rebuild it.”
The ideal situation for Bologh was to find another team or teams for Edgemont to merge with, as it had done in the final years of the program’s previous incarnation. That didn’t happen, but the school increased its commitment in allowing the team to compete this winter.
“In order to take that next step I wanted to make sure it was a viable option for us,” DeRosa said. “I brought in an expert, one of the officials for the section who does stuff on the national level as well, and had her take a look at the girls and their abilities. She felt there wasn’t any reason why we couldn’t proceed with offering it as a varsity sport this year. A lot of the girls have grown up doing gymnastics and she felt they were proficient enough to be able to compete.”
Going from a club program last year to varsity this year meant a more official process had to be followed, including athletic placement for middle-schoolers who want to compete on what are high school teams.
Funding also had to be approved by the board of education.
While DeRosa said all programs are fully funded using “district funds,” he said that includes donations made to organizations like the PTA, PTSA, E Club or the Edgemont Schools Foundation. While the gymnastics and ski coaches both confirmed that families pay into the programs, DeRosa said, “Parents are not obligated in any way, shape or form to make a donation to the district. All of our programs are open to all of our kids with no strings attached… All the programs are budgeted for. Just like anything, we were prepared to run a program like gymnastics that has to use an outside facility. That’s all taken into account and those programs — gymnastics, ski, ice hockey — just like all of our other programs are paid for with district funds.”
Space, enrollment and a coach were the key issues, DeRosa said.
“It’s important to offer as many activities as we can in the confines of our space restrictions,” DeRosa said. “We did lose bowling a couple of years ago, so being able to add another option is definitely beneficial.”
Scarsdale is in a similar situation, having lost its gym space at the high school nearly a decade ago. They have been road warriors for training and meets ever since, and contrary to the initial expectation, the team is stronger than ever in terms of skill level and interest. There was even a time when Edgemont allowed Scarsdale to use gym space a couple of times per week.
“Hopefully we can continue to build and the kids can come up through the youth and we can eventually have more upperclassmen in the program once these young ladies get to that point and stay with the program,” DeRosa said. “If we have kids coming up a good solid team of 12-15 girls would be nice.”
This year’s roster features junior Kate Howard, eighth-graders Sanjana Karthik and Gianna Napolitano and seventh-graders Talia Rothschild, Le Wang and Sofia Gisbert. Bologh’s daughter is not among the six members of the team as she transferred to private school in the fall.
“Sadly after building this thing it ended being a gift to the school district, a labor of love,” Bologh said. “A lot of kids do gymnastics growing up and they stop in part because they don’t see a future in doing it at Edgemont. I felt sad about that. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen, so I’m happy I put in all this work.”
Martell meets her team
Martell started doing gymnastics when she was 2 years old, competed until she was 14 and started coaching at that age. Her school didn’t have gymnastics and she wanted to be with her friends, so she started playing other sports like softball and volleyball.
After college, Martell attended flying trapeze school and later joined the Mexican Circus, where she was an aerialist and equestrian trick rider. After injuries she got her MBA and later found out that Spotlight Gymnastics in Pelham Manor, several blocks from her house, was hiring and she’s been coaching the sport again for many years, including seven with the Edgemont Recreation program.
“I’ve been working with kids my whole life,” Martell said. “Kids just find me. I’m willing to do the things that most adults aren’t like go on the trampoline with them, go in the ocean. The kids here in this district are some of the best I’ve ever worked with. You really end up falling in love with them.”
Martell was excited when Bologh approached her about expanding her role to include the new high school program.
“The fantastic thing about this varsity program is that these kids can do the gymnastics here and then there’s someplace for them to go,” Martell said. “I wanted to do sports with my classmates, so that’s why I stopped with gymnastics. This allows them to continue together.”
And Martell’s philosophy is simple: “It’s not ‘Varsity Blues,’” she said, referring to the crazy coach from the movie. “You’re going to learn more if you’re enjoying yourself, having a good time and you’re allowed to experiment,” Martell said.
Despite having less than ideal equipment at Seely Place, Martell believes her team can achieve anything at the school by breaking down skills and then putting them into action at GymCats. “There’s a lot of skills we can break down into pieces and work on them here so when we go into the gym they can do it,” Martell said. “You’d be surprised what you can do with this equipment because if you are breaking a trick down into tiny pieces you can do it anywhere.”
Some of the girls had competed before and some had not prior to the season, but they’ve all had a chance to compete to at least get a feel for getting up in front of a judge, other teams and spectators and to see where they stand skill-wise and where they can go from here.
Seventh-grader Wang had trained at the JCC of Mid-Westchester for two years, but had not competed. “It was kind of just a hobby,” Wang said. “It’s kind of scary, but fun, because I’ve never had this experience before.”
Wang’s main areas of focus have been front handsprings onto the vault and cartwheels on the beam. She was also working on her back handspring.
“I just recently got my routines,” she said. “It’s kind of complicated because you have to list down all the skills you want to try, practice them and get them synced to the routine and the music.”
Another seventh-grader, Rothschild, has four years of training at Westchester Gymnastics and two years of competing under her belt.
“I’ve always been pretty strong and I could lift up my mom and stuff, so she had been saying for years to go try gymnastics, that I’d like it, but I had a bad experience when I was in kindergarten,” she said. “Then I decided to try it again in fourth grade and I loved it. They invited me to the Challenge Program the next year and then Excel Bronze last year.”
Already comfortable with her club team, Rothschild was hesitant to join the high school team at first, but changed her mind quickly.
“At my gym we mostly work on form, but here we get to work on skills and harder routines,” she said. “You also get to meet people you’ll see around school, instead of just at gymnastics.”
Watching her new teammates grow with the sport in such a short period of time has also been rewarding.
“Some of them weren’t able to do very much at the beginning and now they’ve gotten good and they can do more,” Rothschild said.
Martell has also helped open Rothschild’s eyes to how varsity gymnastics can have a positive impact. “She’s amazing,” Rothschild said. “She helps us organize everything and spots us for anything we want. I’ve learned several new skills while I’ve been here.”
Eighth-grader Karthik participated in Edgemont’s rec program for three years and made the seamless transition to the varsity pilot program last year and the competitive program this year. “It’s nice because if there wasn’t one I don’t know what I’d be doing now,” she said. “It’s harder than the rec thing, but it’s the same environment. It’s nice that we do get to go to real facilities for gymnastics, too.”
Karthik moved to Edgemont from Singapore as a fourth-grader. “I always had an interest for gymnastics, but in my other school there wasn’t gymnastics, so I just knew the basics when I started,” she said. “I’ve been catching up since it’s been a while since I did gymnastics. I didn’t do it over summer and fall, so I had to get my skills back.”
Meet the meets
In addition to two meets in December, Edgemont competed back-to-back this week on Monday and Tuesday coming off the long vacation.
“I’m so proud of them because they keep getting better and better,” Martell said. “They’re not sure that they are, but I keep telling them they are. The fact that we have four meets close together I can tell them what they did well and show them how much they improved. They’re all getting better and starting to believe it.”
The number of gymnasts has varied at each meet, but all six girls have competed at least once.
“Everyone is doing more than one event,” Martell said. “One of our girls, Le Wang, did two events today, but we have a meet next Tuesday and she wants to compete as an all-around. They’re adding events and they’re excited about it.”
Gymnastics is a performance sport where all eyes are on you. Martell calls it “a metaphor for life.”
“I think the biggest thing is it’s such an emotional, psychological sport and sometimes they’re like, ‘Oh, I can’t,’ so we break it down,” Martell said. “That’s why I hope to help them be proud of themselves and have confidence they can do anything.”
Martell loves having Hallowell, who was on the 2015-16 team, as the team’s manager and extra coach as a junior. Her presence and her goals for the girls — making postseason — help guide the team.
“She does a lot of verbal coaching with the girls to do this and that,” Martell said. “And I can tell them what the judge said and this is why you got a tenth off. Somebody in a position of authority is telling them how to improve. It’s awesome.”
Seventh-grader Gisbert has already established herself as the team’s top gymnast. She’s competed three times as an all-around with scores of 32.95, 32.4 and 32.15, which if she competes enough times she can make divisionals and likely sectionals from there.
“I’m a Level 7 outside of school and I decided I wanted to try high school,” Gisbert said. “My parents thought it would be a good opportunity for me, which is why I’m trying it out. It’s really different and it’s so fun.”
Gisbert likes the rules in high school, which allow for more freedom of expression in the routines.
What shocked Gisbert most was winning the all-around against Scarsdale and Ossining on Tuesday. “It gives me a lot more confidence because I can do more skills that I want to do and I can practice them more,” she said. “I have a lot of competitions, so if I mess up I have another chance at the next one.”
Same as the Edgemont gymnastics program. Another chance, indeed.