Saturday, August 8, 2020

Gymnasts reflect as program nears end

April 5, 2001

Emotions may swell.

Tears may fall.

Words of solace may be shared.

For MSU’s 18-member men’s gymnastics team, walking off the mat after this weekend’s NCAA Championships will mean more than just the end to another season.

Fifty-three years after its first match, MSU is preparing to say goodbye to the program.

“It’s kind of hard to believe when you’ve been doing it so long - like 13 years - it’s just going to end all of the sudden,” mechanical engineering freshman gymnast Joel Vargo said of his career. “It’s hard to think that this will be our last year as gymnasts.”

But the team that has qualified for the championships four years in a row will not leave the sport it loves empty-handed - it will forever be left with the memories of competing, of forming friendships and of living its dream.

In the beginning

When George Szypula left the Army in 1945, he had two things on his mind - earning a master’s degree and securing a job. It didn’t take long before he had accomplished both.

A competing gymnast since the age of 5, Szypula enrolled at Temple University in 1946, where he not only earned a master’s in education, but was able to compete as a member of the Amateur Athletic Union - the ruling body at that time for choosing the Olympic team.

In between his studies and competing, Szypula applied for employment with The Ohio State University, Syracuse University and MSU - three schools known for their flourishing athletics programs.

And in September 1947, he was able to check off No. 2 from his list as MSU offered him the chance to help develop its gymnastics program.

“When I got out of the service, I was trying for the Olympic team,” Szypula recalled. “I was ranked ninth in 1947 and was going to try out in 1948, but I had a choice: Take the job and make the team, or not make the team and be without a job.”

At that time, those accepting coaching positions were considered professional athletes - thus removing themselves from Olympic contention.

And Szypula accepted the post.

“When we first started after the war, there was a cessation for a while,” he said. “A lot of those schools that had training programs for the Navy and the Army, it was natural for them to start programs, so we started with 20 programs in the country and then in the ’50s we had about 80.”

At its prime in the mid-1970s, NCAA men’s gymnastics sported 138 programs and had secured a reputation as a popular sport.

Szypula even recalls days when meets at IM Sports-West would draw 2,000 fans - including legendary Spartans like Biggie Munn and President John Hannah.

“We had a nice crowd,” he said.

But like the old cliché says: All good things must come to an end.

In 1988, at 68, Szypula packed up his office and handed the keys over to Rick Atkinson - though he wasn’t leaving behind the sport he loved.

He took a job coaching gymnastics at East Lansing High School - a post he still holds today at age 79.

“This is my life,” he said. “In 55 years of coaching, the only time it stops is when I fall on my face.”

Today only 24 men’s gymnastic programs exist in the country.

Hard-hitting news

On April 24, 2000, dubbed “Black Monday” by the 18-member squad, MSU Athletics Director Clarence Underwood revealed the men’s gymnastics program was being eliminated as a varsity sport because of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Originally the team was told it would be wiped out after the 2000 season. Ultimately, team members were able to bargain for one more season - a year that comes to an end this week.

The news of elimination certainly bothered Atkinson.

“I really felt bad because I brought all of these kids in and they trusted me and they believed in me and it’s not that I promised that we’d be here, but I just assumed we would and they assumed we would,” said Atkinson, the coach since Szypula left.

“So I felt bad for them because

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