Stillwater Area High School (SAHS) will soon welcome students back for another year of reading, writing and arithmetic. But its athletic programs also earn top marks. The Stillwater girls’ gymnastics team is among four SAHS girls’ sports teams to earn a state championship title for last year’s 2017/18 season. This is its first in program history.
The high school gymnastics season runs from November through February and includes athletes from seventh through 12th grades, although last year’s SAHS team had no middle school athletes participate. Co-led by Dusty Dennis and Joan Ledson, the SAHS team just kept getting better all season long.
When you see what you’ve got in terms of gymnasts, “You know there is a ceiling to what you can achieve,” Dennis says. But with the talent on last season’s team, “We knew we had a good chance of winning the section. Ideally, you progress and finish much higher than where you started.”
Most competitive high school gymnasts come from area clubs where they’ve trained for several years. Senior captain Isabel Bartosh started doing gymnastics before she was 2 years old. “I got started … because my mom’s cousin owned a gym and my mom thought it would be fun to put my brother and me in the preschool classes there,” Isabel says.
Danielle Keran, another of last season’s team captains and a 2018 graduate, started gymnastics at around 6 or 7 years old. “Mostly out of curiosity, and for my mom, probably a way to keep me entertained,” she says.
Senior captain (and prep elite spotlight student) Samantha Chang also began her gymnastics training at a young age, around 2 years old. “I instantly fell in love with the sport,” she says. “The most rewarding part of gymnastics is seeing what you and your team can accomplish.”
A gymnastics team’s accomplishments come from four disciplines: bars, beam, floor and vault. “You’re always hoping to ‘hit’ all four events,” Dennis says. “And that’s so rare. We hadn’t done it all season and then we did at the state meet.”
Clearly the combination of the gymnasts’ talent and the positive coaching helped the team surpass its goals. “Our big worry (at the state meet) wasn’t skill but handling pressure,” Dennis says.
Ledson says part of her job was to help the athletes feel comfortable. “We practiced by including all of the environmental things they might encounter (at the state meet),” she says. “It was all about keeping calm.”
Ledson did gymnastics from age 5 through high school. During college, she taught gymnastics through a community education program. Last season was her seventh year with the SAHS gymnastics program.
Dennis, on the other hand, is an outlier. Although he’s been with the team for 13 years, he is not a trained gymnast. The gymnastics team was desperate for a spotter. He agreed and has never looked back. “Once you understand that gymnastics is all about physics, balance and leverage, you start to get it,” Dennis says. “But the best teachers are the girls themselves. They are so brave and already used to doing it.”
He notes the relationship between a gymnast and a coach must be strong in order for either to risk any new skill. “If you think it’s scary to watch [daring feats] it’s even scarier up close,” Dennis says about spotting the athletes. “ Dennis once even had his nose broken while spotting a gymnast.
But rising to challenges have earned this team great rewards. “I am so grateful for my team and our amazing coaches,” Isabel says. “I am so proud of how hard everyone worked … to make our dreams of winning state come true.”