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Future of gymnastics at PHCS in doubt


PARISHVILLE - Just months after the Fierce Five won gold in London and inspired a nation of young girls and women to take up gymnastics, the Parishville-Hopkinton Central School District is debating the future of its program following the retirement of long-time coach Ann M. Krueger-Harmon Burrows.

Ms. Burrows has led the program for the past 39 years and said she would like to see it continue under the leadership of two of her former gymnasts. Nikki Perkins and Darcie MacNiel.

In a letter dated Dec. 17, Ms. Burrows said she was disappointed to hear the program may not be coming back.

“I am writing to express my disappointment concerning your decision to drop the gymnastics program at PHCS,” she wrote. “You have two very competent women who wish to get any certifications necessary as required by Sec. X and also within the district for coaching. These two both have more than six years team experience and also coaching experience working with me.”

While a formal decision to abolish the program has not yet been made, coaches were not hired when the board met in October and discussed the future of the program, effectively ending it.

At the December board of education meeting, Superintendent Darin P. Saiff and the board was presented a petition containing the signatures of 103 students who wanted to see the gymnastics program brought back to the school.

That petition, which simply read, “If you would like gymnastics back, please sign” reignited the conversation, with Mr. Saiff now calling the status of the program “up in the air.”

Brooke E. Newtown attended the meeting and spoke on behalf of the district’s gymnasts.

“We know you have voted gymnastics out and we made a petition with 103 signatures,” she said.

Ms. Newtown then questioned why gymnastics was being targeted for elimination.

“So when Mr. Harper (longtime coach, Evan Harper) retires, there will be no varsity soccer or softball, because you don’t want any injuries under a new coach?” she asked? “What sport will those students, including me, play if we don’t like any other sports?”

Her grandfather, Ron Ferguson also spoke up in support of gymnastics at the meeting.

“What’s this thing, liability?” he asked. “You have liability insurance for other sports programs. How can you say you’re worried about liability? It doesn’t make sense.”

Mr. Remington said comparing gymnastics isn’t something that can be accurately compared to other sports.

“You have to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges,” he said. “Look at your insurance policy. Companies are always looking for a reason to drop you.”

Mr. Saiff said it’s not the liability he’s worried about, rather it’s the safety of the district’s students.

“I’m not sure I heard the board say liability was the issue, I think it was serious injury,” Mr. Saiff recalling the discussion from October’s meeting.

He echoed those sentiments after the meeting and with conversations he had with Ms. Perkins and Ms. MacNiel.

“Financial liability, to be honest, doesn’t concern me nearly as much as the physical well-being of the students and the risk of injury,” he said.

And it’s the superintendent’s fear of injury that Ms. MacNiel said appears likely to doom the program.

“When I talked to Mr. Saiff the other day he told me, ‘To Be honest with you, I’m going to discourage it.’ He said he couldn’t stand to see a child get paralyzed,” she said recalling her conversation with Mr. Saiff prior to Christmas vacation.

While Mr. Saiff said he realizes the risk for injury was always there, he feels that risk is greater with new coaches than it was with Ms. Burrows.

“Was there a risk of injury? Yes, there always will be when you’re doing high amplitude stunts. But when you have a coach with 30-plus years of experience the risk likely goes down a little bit,” he said.

Ms. Burrows said she’s glad the superintendent who was in charge 39 years ago didn’t share those same beliefs.

“I too was a new and young coach when I first started here at Parishville,” she said, adding the start of her career came just a few years removed from a serious injury.

“I was told some students snuck into the gymnasium and proceeded to fool around on the vaulting side horse and a student was injured for life,” she recalled. “Each and every year for many years I was reminded of that accident, and my response and policies always continued to be one of strict safety measures.”

When asked if she felt Ms. MacNiel and Ms. Perkins were qualified to run the program, Ms. Burrows said she has no doubt in their abilities or qualifications.

“I’m absolutely confident in their abilities,” she said, adding she would like to see the program return this year.

“I would hate to see it go away for a year,” she said. “It would be a concern that it would never come back.”

As for the board’s stance, that appears to be split. While not identifying specific board members, Ms. Burrows said in her letter that two of the district’s current board members were gymnasts themselves and five of them have children who have participated in the program. Ironically, it would take five yes votes to hire coaches and restore the program.

Board member Fred Wilhelm said he feels like gymnastics is the best bargain the district has.

“For the amount of money that’s spent (the only expense is a coaching stipend) and the number of students involved, I think we get the best for out investment,” he said. “It’s all in-house, so they don’t go to other schools, so there’s no transportation cost. There’s no season, they just put on an exhibition.”

And while there may not be a season, board member Tim Zellweger said the sport and its equipment take up a lot of time and space.

“In the past they’ve tied up the gym for three months,” he said, to which fellow board member Heidi Simmons wondered if it wasn’t a problem then, why is it a problem now.

Ms. Simmons also said she would like to see the sport come back.

“All of the people who were willing to help were extremely willing to get their certification,” she said.

Board of education member Robert White said he agrees with Mr. Saiff and is worried about the safety of the students involved with the program.

“On a scale of one to 10, she was an 11 and I don’t want to settle for a five,” he said, referring to Ms. Burrows and the prospective coaches. “You have to find someone equal to her. If they walk in here with credentials then they’ve got a chance.”

Board members B. Resa Remington and Dan Taylor both said if the coaches get certified, they would be in favor of bringing the program back.

“I thought the reason we turned it down was the two young ladies didn’t have a coaching certificate. If they would get their certificate, I think we would let it fly,” Ms. Remington said.

“If they want the program back, bring the people in here and let us know what their certifications are,” Mr. Taylor said. “If they had certified coaches that would be great.”

James Young also said he would be willing to support the restoration of gymnastics, but only if the program had certified coaches.

“The certification has to be in place before they start,” he said.

Mr. Remington offered up a bit of advice to those hoping to save the sport, “Do your homework and get your ducks in a row,” he said.

And that’s something that Ms. MacNiel said she would be willing to do.

“I haven’t done any of my certification requirements, because we were turned down in October,” she said. “I told them I wasn’t going to waste money getting certified, if they weren’t going to bring the program back.”

She continued, “I talked to Mr. Saiff the other day and told him that if they brought the program back, I would get certified.”

Ms. Perkins said she actually began her certification course, but stopped after four weeks of the six-week class after hearing the program had been canceled.

She recalled meeting with Athletic Director Robert Stewart and Mr. Saiff prior to the start of the school year.

“They gave us their word that they would get the information about what safety certifications we needed for gymnastics at Parishville,” she said, adding when she attended the September board meeting to discuss the program, it was almost as if the meeting had never happened.

“They acted like they never had that meeting with us,” Ms. Perkins said. “I feel they pushed us away, so that we wouldn’t be able to get certified and have a season this year.”

When asked if she think the program has any future, Ms. Perkins, who has a sister hoping to participate in gymnastics this year, said she really does hope it comes back, but she’s doesn’t think it will.

“I don’t really think they’re going to bring it back. If they were, they would have been prepared at that first board meeting,” she said.

And even if the program does come back, Ms. Perkins said at this point she’s not sure what kind of role she could play.

“Now they’re bringing it back up, but I’ve kind of thought about doing other things,” she said, adding she would be willing to defer leadership of the team to Ms. MacNiel.

“I don’t know if I could be the leader at this point, but Darcie would do a great job,” she said.

“This is something special to Parishville,” she said. “I was in gymnastics from third grade until I was a senior. I really enjoyed the program and ever since I graduated in 2006 I helped out whenever I could. I was hoping to maybe one day take over the program.”

Ms. MacNiel also noted that gymnastics has been a part of her life for a long time.

“I’ve been doing gymnastics since I was seven,” she said, adding her involvement with the sport at Parishville-Hopkinton began when her family moved to Parishville when she was in the eighth grade.

Ms. MacNiel has also taught gymnastics at SUNY Potsdam with Mrs. Burrows and even directed a show there.

“That’s why I don’t understand why they’re doing this to us. It’s not like we don’t know what we’re doing,” she said.

While Ms. MacNiel said she’s willing to do whatever it takes to bring the program back, she too fears that one year without gymnastics would be the death of the program.

“I think if it’s gone for a year, then it’s going to be gone forever, because I don’t think Mr. Saiff wants it to be a part of the school,” she said. That’s something that set Parishville apart. I was proud to go to Parishville-Hopkinton because they had a gymnastics program.”

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