Wes Suter, a 1981 graduate of South Lakes High School and 1988 Olympic gymnast, was so competitive that his physical education teachers had a game that they played with him — one in which he was an unwilling participant.
"I have never in all of my years of coaching, and I coached for 32 years, have never met an individual with fire in the belly to perform at a high level [like Wes]," said former South Lakes gymnastics coach Bob Graumann. "Whether it was practice, warm-ups or a meet, he had that killer instinct and wanted to win."
Suter, who led South Lakes to its first state title in 1982, was so competitive that Graumann and other PE teachers would test him in the school's gymnasium.
"We would make calls against him in PE just to see him rant and rave," said Graumann, who started the Seahawk boys gymnastics program when the school opened in 1978.
Calls against Suter were few and far between in his chosen sport of gymnastics.
SUTER WON A Virginia High School League state record 15 AAA state titles in high school as well as three all-around titles. He won seven of his 15 state titles in his senior year sweeping every event in the state competition including the pommel horse, high bar, floor exercise, vault, rings, parallel bars and all-around competition. He set a record for the highest score in an all-around competition recording 55.6 points out of a possible 60. South Lakes defeated Robinson 148.9-124.2 for the school's first state title (1982). According to the National High School Sports Record Book, Suter — who was selected as a high school All-American as a senior — is one of only eight male gymnasts ever to record three all-around state titles at the high school level. He is the only one from Virginia ever to do so. "I think he was underrated because he was a pioneer in the sport. Gymnastics was so new at the time that I don’t think people realized what was there," said Herndon gymnastics coach and long-time area club coach Keith Naquin, who added that Suter set the standard for high school gymnastics.
"When we first met Wes, he did not want to practice with the team," said Graumann. "I said 'that's fine, you are not a part of the team.'" Suter, who had been a gymnast from the age of seven, after doctors told his parents that his hyperactivity needed tranquilizers to tire him out, was far and above more talented than the four other members of South Lakes' original gymnastics team.
"His nursery school teacher said 'we just got to get this kid tired,'" said his mother Betty Lou, a former substitute teacher at South Lakes, who now lives in Rehoboth Beach, Del. "He climbs up on anything," the teacher told her. "I never worry about him, I worry about the other kids following and getting hurt."
Suter, who already had a private coach at a gym in Maryland, learned to become part of a team.
"We made a compromise that he would work part-time with the private coach and on weekends, he would spend a majority of the time with the high school team," said Graumann. "As the years went by, Wes became more and more of a team member."
Suter agreed that Graumann helped break him in to the team atmosphere.
"It's a very individualistic sport," said Suter. "Coach Graumann is a football coach. I don't care what he tells you, he is just diligent enough to study gymnastics to coach at a high level." The team atmosphere helped push Suter to success at Nebraska and with the Olympic team.
SUTER WAS THE face of male gymnastics in the early 1980's — literally. He starred in an educational film called "Wes's Way," a 30-minute film sponsored by Nabisco that was distributed to high school health classes on the importance of exercise and nutrition.
"That was the start and the end of my acting career," remembered Suter, who starred in the film with actors Frank Gifford and Jack Kemp.
"His world was gymnastics," said Graumann. "He practiced seven days a week four hours a day for 15 years."
That kind of practice led Suter, only 24 years old, to become part of the 1988 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team that took 11th that year.
"It was everything I guess you would think it would be," said Suter, who marveled at some of the athletes he met in the Olympic Village. "The pressure wasn't quite as great as I would have thought it would be. I probably had, if not my best, my second best competition I had ever had."
The Soviet Union took gold that year. Before Olympic stardom, Suter won a national title in 1983 with the University of Nebraska. He won the floor exercise and horizontal bars en route to the 1985 NCAA all-around title capping a career at Nebraska that included three NCAA titles and five All-American selections. That year was particularly difficult for Suter as his father Ken, his biggest supporter, died at the age of 47 from cancer.
"He was really thoughtful in the way he approached my career," said Suter. "Not to say he's one of those parents that would have pushed me to be great at any costs, he was the opposite."
"To this day he carries a picture of his dad congratulating him [after he won the NCAA All-Around in 1985]," said Betty Lou. Suter's younger brother Richard, also a gymnast, who Graumann said was "more artistic than Wes," won the district title at South Lakes that same year. Wes was honored with the Nissen Award — the equivalent to college football's Heisman award — which is awarded to the nation's top gymnast. Suter, who was a bronze medalist at the World Sports Fair in Tokyo, Japan in 1986, was named the U.S. Male Gymnast of the Year in 1988. He earned a degree in marketing in 1987 and an MBA in 1993 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He earned a law degree from Creighton University in 1997 and is currently working as an attorney with Mutual of Omaha — a Corporate Mergers and acquisitions firm. Along with being a motivational speaker, he also participates as a coach with the Special Olympics. He and his wife Molly have four children, Will, Jake, Luke and Mia.
"When you start in sports, you need to set your goals high," said Suter. "My goal was to win a gold medal in the Olympics and I did not do that, but that's not to say winning NCAA titles and high school and other things [wasn't special too]."
Wes's Way Graduated 1981 or 1982?
Wes Suter won 15 individual state titles in high school and three all-around titles. The following is a list of his titles during his time at South Lakes:
South Lakes's Success
South Lakes High School started its boys gymnastics team in 1978, when the school opened its doors. The team started with just five members under head coach Bob Graumann and grew to 22 members by Suter's senior year (1982). The Seahawks boys gymnastics squad had a five-year reign of dominance. The following is a list of South Lakes state tournament appearances and the score from their state championship runs:
Year State Finals Result
1984 Clover Hill 130.15 South Lakes 129.90
1983 South Lakes 124.63 Monacan 117.80
1982 South Lakes 149.77 James Robinson 124.18 (see below)
1981 Monacan 141.88 South Lakes 140.60
1980 Hayfield 122.17 South Lakes 116.34
Wes Suter is 15 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.