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Gymnastics Doomed in Arlington?

Fairfax County might cut the sport amidst budget deficit and area coaches fear Arlington could do the same.

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Yorktown’s Natasha Koermer finishes a routine during last Saturday’s Washington-Lee Invitational. With Fairfax County debating whether to get rid of its girl’s gymnastics programs, there are concerns over what teams Arlington schools will compete against in the future.

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Yorktown coach Joanne Price (right) and her Patriot team are worried about the fate of their sport with Fairfax County proposing to it from the budget entirely. When Fairfax County got rid of boy’s gymnastics five years ago, Arlington followed suit.

It was just five years ago that Joe D’Emidio watched the best high school boy’s gymnastics team in the country celebrate by getting word that their sport would no longer be offered the next season.

It was a stunning development for D’Emidio, then the coach of both the boy’s and girl’s gymnastics teams at Washington-Lee, as a team of all stars that included several Arlington standouts watched their sport get eliminated due to the budget constraints of other areas.

“When we got back, they cut boy’s gymnastics in Fairfax County,” recalled D’Emidio, who now does double duty as the girl’s coach at both Washington-Lee and Wakefield. “Arlington had the budget for it, but they were like ‘Joe, who are you going to compete with?’”

Flash forward to the present and there’s a growing fear that girl’s gymnastics in Arlington could suffer the same fate — with Fairfax County now deliberating over a budget proposal that would eliminate the sport entirely from the high school level due to a reported $170 million shortfall.

Last Saturday’s Washington-Lee Invitational was a perfect example of the uncertainty facing county officials and gymnastics coaches alike. Of the seven schools competing, four were from Fairfax County. Since the first preliminary 2009-10 Arlington budget isn’t to be released until the end of February, nothing has been determined yet. But that has just meant a lot of anxious coaches, students, and parents.

“Once it goes, I doubt they’ll ever bring it back,” said D’Emidio, who started coaching at W-L in 1976.

<b>BOTH D’EMIDIO</b> and Yorktown coach Joanne Price have already discussed contingency plans for next season should Fairfax no longer have girl’s gymnastic programs. All three Arlington schools will still be able to compete against teams from Loudoun and Prince William County, but both coaches said they will have to cut their schedules in half, from eight or 10 meets a season to three or four.

And even though the Arlington Public School Board has not had any discussions about what, if any, sports could succumb to budget concerns amidst a weak economy, the thought process of Fairfax County will be taken into consideration.

“We’re not going to make decisions based on what other school systems do, but it is something we have to look at,” said Debbie DeFranco, APS’s supervisor of physical education and athletics. “Arlington doesn’t have to follow suit, but it will make us re-examine things because Fairfax [County schools] are our biggest competitors.”

Fairfax’s preliminary budget also proposed cutting indoor track, but signs point to that sport being off the chopping block for the time being.

But what has many gymnastics coaches around the area irked is the reasoning behind Fairfax County’s decision making. Bill Curran, Fairfax county’s director of athletics, has characterized girl’s gymnastics as a “dying sport” in high school with plenty of opportunities at the club level.

<b>THIS LOGIC IS WRONG</b>, according to most coaches, because many of these club gymnasts have to practice all year-round and being able to compete at the high school level is their only opportunity to represent their schools and be recognized by their peers.

“When they are applying for colleges it looks like they didn’t do anything to contribute or they didn’t do athletics when they spent hours upon hours — probably more than most sports — in the gym,” said Price.

And of the four coaches interviewed Saturday, none had more than a couple of girls on each squad that competed at the club level. Carly Meyer, the gymnastics coordinator of the Arlington Aerials club program, said to even be a part of their recreational team, participants had to be a level four gymnast and “a lot of the high schoolers who do the sport are not equivalent” to that. The club program is more exclusive and can cost up to $310 a month.

Proponents of the sport say officials throughout Virginia should take into account Title IX issues and look towards cutting freshmen team programs, rather than seeking to eliminate an entire varsity sport. The Fairfax County school board is holding an additional public comments hearing Tuesday night, after the Connection’s press time, before a final budget decision is made in May.

For now, everyone involved with Arlington gymnastics can only hope that what took place in the past doesn’t take precedent in the future.

“I’m an optimist, and I’m looking at keeping the program going,” said D’Emidio. “I’m planning ahead for next year and for this invitational to be in our gym once again.”