Watching all the gymnastics on television at the Summer Olympics in London started me thinking about the development and popularity of the sport in Chattanooga.
Tumbling and other aspects of gymnastics have likely been around locally for decades, but I believe the sport in its current complete form began its slow ascent to popularity in Chattanooga starting about the early 1970s.
At least that is when I became involved with the sport. My first connection with gymnastics came as a student at Bright School about 1970, after the school had purchased two or three pieces of gymnastics equipment from the Nissen company.
I remember we had a vaulting horse, a mini-trampoline, mats, and possibly parallel bars and other equipment. We would use them regularly during the exercise period in the school’s old King Room, which later became the library.
Other area schools could have also had such gymnastics equipment at that time, but the number that did was probably minimal.
I still have many memories of taking part in gymnastics from about the time I was in fourth grade until I graduated from Bright as a sixth-grader in 1972. Some of them are good, and some of them are not so good.
I actually practiced the sport only minimally, so my skills never became very good. However, I actually did somehow advance to a state meet in the vaulting horse one year in the beginning division.
I remember that my mother, Velma Shearer, took me up to some high school or possibly college gymnasium in Nashville one Saturday, and I realized I was the only competitor in the beginning division. But I still took home a blue ribbon or first-place medal.
I think I was even briefly recognized during a regular Monday school assembly at Bright, and I am not sure if I had the heart to tell people I was the only competitor.
Some of my other memories of gymnastics are not so great, including when we had a special day when the parents came and watched us perform on some of the gymnastics equipment. I think I was not comfortable with the vault I was doing and kind of messed up. I remember my mother walking into my classroom to give me a hug afterward.
Aren’t mothers great! Instead of telling us we messed up, they give us a hug!
I remember also taking part with some of my Bright classmates in a citywide gymnastics meet at the fairly new James Fowle YMCA downtown. I also did not do that well in it in the very simple vaults and routines, making me realize I probably did not have the greatest future in the sport.
I also took some group gymnastics lessons – perhaps once a week over two or three months – at the North River YMCA after about the first year it opened in the early 1970s.
I remember about 10-to-15 other boys and girls would be at each lesson, and we would just stand in line and take turns doing the same routine, such as a brief exercise on the parallel bars.
One of the participants was named Paul Harvey. I think he eventually moved out of town, but I heard later that he became somewhat of an accomplished gymnast. I remember he was small and had the perfect build for gymnastics.
While I would focus on other sports like football, basketball, track and golf as I grew older, the sport of gymnastics was about to blossom locally.
I did not realize this at the time, but part of it was due to a woman gymnast from the Soviet Union named Olga Korbut. NBC aired a touching feature story on her over the weekend discussing how she became the darling of the 1972 Summer Olympics as a previously unknown 17-year-old by her dazzling routines.
She had been secretly coached to perform more for the crowd, and her performances were so great and moving that ABC ended up devoting much more airtime to gymnastics than originally planned. Listening to tapes of Jim McKay give his skillful commentary while I was watching the weekend special was touching, and I realized that future Olympic telecasts started devoting much more time to gymnastics simply as a result of Ms. Korbut.
And the sport would continue to draw increased interest from America with Romanian Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10 performances at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. And then the Americans would finally start being competitive, beginning with Mary Lou Retton in 1984.
One of the early gymnastics’ coaching pioneers in Chattanooga may have been L. Scott Johnson. He was an art teacher at Baylor School in the mid-1970s and coached a gymnastics team there.
But by 1977, he was listed in the Chattanooga city directory as operating the Gymnastics Academy of Chattanooga.
And in 1978, he was listed as the operator of the Iron Horse Academy on Pineville Road, which may have been the first or certainly one of the first of the modern gymnastics gyms locally.
And in the subsequent decades – as cheerleading became more closely connected with gymnastics – plenty of other gymnastics-oriented facilities have opened.
I must admit that I could probably no longer do so much as a cartwheel – at least without hearing my bones creak – but I am proud to have been a local gymnastics pioneer on a very limited level.