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Future of gymnastics at Parishville-Hopkinton in doubt

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PARISHVILLE — Just months after the Fierce Five won gold in the London Olympics and inspired a nation of girls to take up gymnastics, the Parishville-Hopkinton Central School District is debating the future of its program, with the retirement of longtime coach Ann M. Krueger-Harmon Burrows.

Ms. Burrows has led the program for the past 39 years and said she would like to see it continue under the leadership of two of her former gymnasts, Nikki Perkins and Darcie MacNeill. Ms. Burrows said in a letter Dec. 17 that she was disappointed to hear the program may not be coming back.

School officials say the risk of severe injury to a student, especially with a new coach in charge, is the reason for their reluctance to continue the program.

While a formal decision to abolish the program has not yet been made, coaches were not hired when the board met in October and discussed the future of the program, effectively ending it.

At the December Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Darin P. Saiff and the board were presented a petition containing the signatures of 103 students who wanted to see the gymnastics program brought back to the school.

That petition, which simply read, “If you would like gymnastics back, please sign,” reignited the conversation, with Mr. Saiff now calling the status of the program “up in the air.”

Brooke E. Newtown attended the meeting and spoke on behalf of the district’s gymnasts, questioning why gymnastics was being targeted for elimination.

“So when Mr. Harper (longtime coach Evan Harper) retires, there will be no varsity soccer or softball, because you don’t want any injuries under a new coach?” she asked. “What sport will those students, including me, play if we don’t like any other sports?”

Mr. Saiff said it’s not the liability he’s worried about; rather, it’s the safety of the district’s students. “I’m not sure I heard the board say liability was the issue; I think it was serious injury,” Mr. Saiff said, recalling the discussion from October’s meeting.

He echoed those sentiments after the meeting and with conversations he had with Ms. Perkins and Ms. MacNeill.

“Financial liability, to be honest, doesn’t concern me nearly as much as the physical well-being of the students and the risk of injury,” he said.

While Mr. Saiff said he realizes the risk of injury was always there, he feels that risk is greater with new coaches than it was with Ms. Burrows.

“Was there a risk of injury? Yes, there always will be when you’re doing high-amplitude stunts. But when you have a coach with 30-plus years of experience, the risk likely goes down a little bit,” he said.

When asked if she felt Ms. MacNeill and Ms. Perkins were qualified to run the program, Ms. Burrows said she has no doubt in their abilities or qualifications.

“I’m absolutely confident in their abilities,” she said, adding she would like to see the program return this year.

As for the board’s stance, that appears to be split.

Board member Frederick G. Wilhelm said he feels as if gymnastics is the best bargain the district has.

“For the amount of money that’s spent (the only expense is a coaching stipend) and the number of students involved, I think we get the best for our investment,” he said. “It’s all in-house, so they don’t go to other schools, so there’s no transportation cost. There’s no season; they just put on an exhibition.”

Board member Timothy R. Zellweger said the sport and its equipment take up a lot of time and space.

“In the past they’ve tied up the gym for three months,” he said, to which fellow board member Heidi C. Simmons asked, if it wasn’t a problem then, why is it a problem now.

Ms. Simmons also said she would like to see the sport come back.

Board member Robert White said he agrees with Mr. Saiff and is worried about the safety of the students involved in the program.

“On a scale of one to 10, she was an 11, and I don’t want to settle for a five,” he said, referring to Ms. Burrows and the prospective coaches. “You have to find someone equal to her. If they walk in here with credentials then they’ve got a chance.”

Board members B. Resa Remington and Dan Taylor both said if the coaches get certified, they would be in favor of bringing the program back.

“I thought the reason we turned it down was the two young ladies didn’t have a coaching certificate. If they would get their certificate, I think we would let it fly,” she said.

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