And Clark County isn’t spared. This winter, of the 14 schools with gymnastics, half don’t field full teams.
Coaches who spoke to The Columbian can’t pinpoint specific reasons for shrinking numbers in a short amount of time, but agree it’s happening. They acknowledge it’s more than bouncing back from the COVID-19 after-effects that’s impacted their sport and the high school sports landscape.
It’s a trend noticeable prior to COVID-19.
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The National Federation of State High School Associations, or NFHS, tallies participation numbers from all 51 state associations annually. In 2019, data revealed a decline in high school athletics and activities participation for the first time in 31 years. October’s national data of the 2021-22 school year showed a 4 percent drop from 2018-19, as high school sports rebounds from COVID-19.
While volleyball and girls wrestling continue to gain popularity, gymnastics is on the opposite trend. On a national scale, the sport was last in the top 10 for popularity in 1985-86. Closer to home, the 964 prep gymnasts in Washington last winter was the state’s lowest turnout in the nearly 50 years of data.
In the past 20 years, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association sanctioned three girls sports — bowling (2001), girls wrestling (2007) and the rebirth of slowpitch softball (2018). Yet the number of gymnastics programs statewide remains steady. Since 1990, an average of 75 schools offer gymnastics.
One year after the 2016 Olympic Games, statewide gymnastics numbers reached levels not seen since the 1970s — nearly 2,300 gymnasts. Coaches say it’s common after an Olympic year to see a boost in interscholastic turnout, but recent downward trends has Samuels concerned for the sport’s future.
And it goes beyond athletes.
“If we don’t grow our coaches and our officials (judges), I’m afraid the future of our sport is dismal,” Samuels said. “If we don’t continue to keep programs and we start losing programs because we don’t have coaches or officials, it’s going to really limit the opportunities for girls.”
Because gymnastics is such a technical sport, coaches are required to undergo rigorous safety certification training, and must be well-versed in techniques and dangers on the four apparatuses (balance beam, floor exercise, uneven bars, vault).
Building the coaching tree with new generations is crucial, local veteran coaches said. Recent head-coaching hires include Nicole Gorretta, who leads the Columbia River program she competed for in 2015 and 2016, and Dakota Tast, a former Union standout, now head coach of the Battle Ground Public Schools team. The Battle Ground Public Schools program consists of gymnasts from Battle Ground, Prairie, and for the first time, Hockinson.
Since Tast’s first season in 2021, the coach has built a program from five gymnasts to 13.
Fresh off Prairie’s district title in 2022, Tast understands the importance of athlete participation — not just the number of varsity competitors. She’s all about maximizing opportunities for all students to remain active in their school programs.
Hence, building up the team-first atmosphere for all experience levels of gymnasts.
“That keeps our program building,” she said.
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Clark County’s rise in gymnastics at the state level began in the early 1990s, but not before a major downfall. In 1991, the Greater St. Helens League athletic directors voted to discontinue girls gymnastics citing low participation, costly equipment, and lack of adequate facilities as top concerns. The decision was reversed months later, behind public support of high school gymnastics.
A year later, Prairie’s Dawn Kisselburgh (vault) and Columbia River’s Shana Staples (uneven bars) became the area’s first individual state champions. By January 1993, more than 1,000 spectators watched a dual meet at Prairie High School between Columbia River and Prairie.
Since then, a Clark County team has finished first or second at state 11 times. More recently, Camas won three consecutive 4A titles (2018-’20) and finished second in February 2022.
Camas continues to attract high numbers under head coach Carol Willson. In the program’s title-winning season in 2020, Willson’s roster featured 40 Papermakers. While some schools in other regions in the state may cut athletes who don’t have the required skills, that’s not the case in Southwest Washington.
High school gymnastics is unlike any other high school sport since the state’s elite typically don’t compete at the interscholastic level. But higher-level gymnasts, what interscholastic gymnastics provides differs from the club scene. Club gymnastics is known for focusing on individuals and provides year-round access for training. High school programs can’t do that, but what it does provide is a team experience.
“I like this team environment,” said Columbia River senior Sydney Stahl, a state competitor in 2022. “I find this to be more fun. The team is a lot more happy and excited to be around. It’s just a better environment overall.”
Prairie senior Gretchen Lane is a Level 9 gymnast (Level 10 is the highest level in USA Gymnastics Junior Olympics program) and said the team aspect and relaxed atmosphere of high school gymnastics are what she appreciates most. Although she’s no longer a competitive club gymnast, the sport continues to bring out her passion. Lane was a key figure on Prairie’s district-title winning team that placed seventh at the 3A/2A/1A state meet in 2022. The Falcons have top-five ambitions at state in 2023.
“You can come in, have fun, and enjoy it,” she said.