Men's Sports Sports

Before basketball, James Naismith helped grow gymnastics at Springfield College

By Kevin Saxe

Walking past the Richard B. Flynn Campus Union. Students, faculty and other college employees funnel in and out for a variety of reasons from getting a quick bite to eat to visiting one of the many offices the Union has to offer.

Sitting across from the entrance of the Campus Union is a small monument that is passed by most people on a daily basis. The bronze-colored statue features a man sitting there with a basketball and a peach basket. That man has been ingrained in pretty much everyone who’s learned about basketball; they know it’s James Naismith. Yes, he invented basketball, but not many people realize he can be credited for being an integral part of another sport on campus.

A sport with an even longer history than basketball.

“A lot of people don’t know that Naismith was actually a great gymnast and he actually performed at various gym shows here at Springfield College as early as 1890,” Springfield College Archivist Jeffrey Monseau said.

Senior gymnast Giancarlo Lawrence also points out, “James Naismith coined this college as the birthplace of basketball, but let’s not forget he was a gymnast before anything.”

Not only does the sport of gymnastics predate basketball at a college that rightfully so is coined the “Birthplace of Basketball,” but as a competitive team it also outdates basketball. While basketball’s first competitive team was in 1905-06, the first gymnastics team was actually established a year prior according to Monseau.

“It got its start in 1904 and immediately picked up as a traveling exhibition show where they’d go off and perform.”

In 1904, the groundwork for what we know as Homeshow was laid. According to the archives, “Beginning in 1904, the Springfield College Gymnastics team would travel to cities to perform their Gymnastics routines. At the end of their travels, they would perform a ‘Home Show’ at Springfield College, a show they continue to perform to this day.”

When you have a program with so much history it’s not the gymnasts but the coaches as well. One of those coaches was Leslie Judd, a member of the US Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Judd coached the team and is still widely considered “a father of modern gymnastics,” who helped turn the exhibition team into a way to, “promote and maintain an interest in gymnastics, dance, and the artistic phases of physical education,” according to the Springfield College archives.

However, it’s not just men’s gymnastics that has a long history on campus. The entire sport of women’s gymnastics as a whole has some of its direct roots dating back to the infancy of the sport tied directly to Springfield College. The college had the privilege of hosting the first-ever women’s collegiate gymnastics championships in 1969.

Led by Mimi Murray as their head coach, they were pretty successful from the get go.

“The women’s gymnastics team here at Springfield College won the first ever national championship of women’s gymnastics. That is not just Division I, II or III, it was the national championships of women’s gymnastics in 1969,” Monseau said.

Being part of a sport and a program with so much history is not something to be taken for granted. Head coach of men’s gymnastics Matthew Davis understands what it’s like to be part of the program at various different levels. His journey with the Pride started as an athlete competing on the men’s gymnastics team under legendary head coach Steve Posner before graduating in 2008. Following his graduation, Davis would return for two more years as a graduate assistant coach. Seven years after getting his masters degree in Athletic Administration, Davis would be named the head coach of the team replacing Posner who coached for 34 years for the Pride.

For Davis, he knows how lucky he has been in his journey throughout his various roles in the gymnastics program at Springfield.

“Not many people can say they were an athlete, an assistant coach, and a head coach at one particular school,” Davis said. “This is something that I do not take for granted and is a driving force in working hard to continue to make the program grow each day and year to continue to add to the rich gymnastics history”

For Davis, it’s not just about adding more history to an already historic program but also making sure every year his teams are appreciative of everyone who’s had a part in building the program to what it is today.

“We’re one of the older gymnastics programs in the country. It’s something that I tell the guys that they represent more than themselves,” he said. “There’s so many people who put time and effort into the program to get the program to where it is today. From past coaches like Frank Wolcott to Steve Posner to myself and a lot of gymnasts.”

It’s not just alums who look to build on the success of the programs, but also non-alums. One of those non-alums is current head coach of women’s gymnastics Jenn Najuch. Najuch, who is in her fifth season and competed collegiately at SUNY Cortland, knew Springfield was special before she even got to Alden Street.

“I distinctly remember my coach Gary Babjack on the bus rides to Springfield talking about Springfield and talking about the philosophy and the Homeshow,” she said.

Despite not having a connection to the college like Davis on the men’s side, Najuch was also tasked with replacing a coaching legend. She replaced Cheryl Raymond, who coached the Pride for 35 seasons. For Najuch, she knows while she has a lot to live up to, there is also a benefit to having such legends of the sport be part of the team’s history.

“It certainly gives me something to live up to. Following Cheryl Raymond, and [Mimi] Murray and coach [Diane] Potter,” Najuch said. “It makes me want to talk to those coaches and ask what they did and ask how they were so successful so we can continue that growth.”

It’s not just the coaches who take pride in being a part of such historic programs. One of those is senior Giancarlo Lawrence. Lawrence, who could’ve stayed closer to his home in Jacksonville, Fla., detailed why he chose to come to Springfield for gymnastics.

“I knew it was my calling to participate in keeping this tradition of Homeshow, the bond between the men and women’s team, and the program altogether thriving, and that’s where I get my motivation and pride to compete for this team,” he said.

With over a century built into the men’s program and over a half century built into the women’s program, gymnastics continues to build their “Tradition of Excellence” on Alden Street. The men next compete on Feb. 9 at the University of Illinois with their next home meet coming the following Sunday, Feb. 16 against Temple and Washington.

Meanwhile, the women’s next meet is Saturday, Feb. 1 where they do battle with the host Westchester College as well as NCGA East region foe Rhode Island College. The women are next home Sunday, Feb. 9 against Ithaca and Ursinus both fellow NCGA East Region teams.

Featured photo courtesy of Springfield College Archives

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