By Collin Atwood
The origins of gymnastics at Springfield College trace all the way back to 1891 when an informal team of students and staff traveled to New York City for an exhibition meet. Notable staff members on this team were Amos Alonzo Stagg, James Naismith, Luther Gulick and Frank Seerley. When this team competed it would be the first competitive team to represent the college.
Springfield College has now had a steady competitive gymnastics program for 57 years, but the road to competition wasn’t so smooth.
Springfield College didn’t have an organized team until 1904. That team was only an exhibition team and was not competing in any league. In 1907 the team scheduled a competitive event against Amherst College and that would be the only one until 1931.
Leslie Judd was the coach of the gymnastics team when they were able to compete from 1931 to 1933. The team was a part of the Eastern League until Springfield College’s first full-time President, Laurence Doggett, pulled the team from competition.
It wasn’t until 1964 that there was a full competitive and exhibition team at Springfield College. The coach that helped build this team was Frank Wolcott.
Wolcott graduated from Springfield College in 1952 and was a member of the gymnastics team under coach Judd.
Wolcott served two years in the Korean War before he was named the head coach of the gymnastics team in 1955.
“At the end of my graduate year the athletic director and the Dean of the college came to me and said coach Judd is leaving this year and we want him to be replaced with a special person and we’ve selected you,” Wolcott said.
Coach Wolcott led the men’s gymnastics team to the first National Championship in Springfield College history in 1977. He also won two Eastern Intercollegiate Gymnastics League titles and five New England titles. None of that would have been possible without a competitive gymnastics team.
When Wolcott was first hired he pushed for the gymnastics team to be back in the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC). The new athletic director at the time was not the biggest fan of the idea. Eventually, Wolcott was able to sway him the other way.
“The men on the team needed more than an exhibition. They needed a competitive experience,” Wolcott said. Originally only two competitive events were added to the schedule and as time went on he finally got his full competition schedule. “We worked very hard and started from scratch,” he added.
Not only did Wolcott help start the competitive team at Springfield College, but he was also a key piece in getting the women’s gymnastics team started.
Females weren’t accepted as full-time students at Springfield College until 1951. In 1963, the college decided it was time to have a women’s gymnastics team. The first coach would be Diane Potter who also served as the college’s softball coach.
The college wanted Wolcott to help out with the women’s team while he was coaching the men’s competitive and exhibition teams.
“They made me the director of the co-ed gymnastics exhibition team,” Wolcott said.
From then on the women’s gymnastics team was a regular part of performances at Springfield College and abroad.
During Wolcott’s time as head coach, the gymnastics program performed at a variety of locations. They appeared in the United States Pavilion at the 1965 World’s Fair in New York City and on that same trip they stopped at Shea Stadium to perform in front of 50,000 fans.
“I took the team to Bermuda, Puerto Rico, to the World’s Fair, I did all sorts of things,” Wolcott said. The team flew out to Puerto Rico for a nine day tour in 1968 and to Bermuda in 1973 which was the first time gymnastics was brought to the island.
Wolcott’s involvement with the women’s team led to one of his more brilliant ideas. He was trying to figure out a safe way to incorporate the women in pyramid building.
“We’re not going to put women in pyramids on parallel bars. I have to figure out something else,” Wolcott said.
This led him to develop a large parachute made of silk that would be used when making pyramids. This is the very same parachute that is used in elementary schools across the country.
“I invented the elementary school parachute and most schools in the country have two or three,” Wolcott said.
Wolcott’s list of accomplishments goes on and on. He co-founded the New England Gymnastics Clinic, was named National Coach of The Year in 1977, and was named Eastern Coach of The Year in 1965, ‘67, and ‘70. It’s safe to say he has earned his spot in the National Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
To this day Wolcott has the highest winning percentage in Springfield College gymnastics history. After retiring from coaching in 1982, Wolcott became the Assistant Director of Athletics at Springfield College until 1996.
Wolcott has woven himself into Springfield College for years to come. Many of the tableaux designs that he and Judd created are still used today.
Wolcott is also a member of the Springfield College Hall of Fame, but not just for his outstanding statistics coaching and competing in gymnastics. He earned that spot by changing gymnastics at Springfield College and across the nation.
Photo: Springfield College Archives