By Timothy Cox
COLDWATER -- Following an extended moment of silence, the Coldwater gymnastics program slipped into history Tuesday night.
School board members stood by an administrative decision by high school Principal Steve Keller and Superintendent Rich Seas to scrap the program due to schedule and travel concerns.
The board listened to 45 minutes of passionate but polite pleas to save the program from parents and even a couple of gymnasts. They also were presented a petition to keep the sport signed by 1,284 residents.
Linda Steinbrunner, board vice president, then called for a motion to overturn the administrative decision. Board members sat in silence.
After a few seconds, Steinbrunner informed the 60 or so visitors what the lack of action meant -- the gymnastics program is dropped. Several of the gymnasts immediately broke down in tears and left the meeting. The team has competed for nearly 30 years under the same head coach, Jane Diller. Sixteen girls competed during the recently concluded winter season.
Just minutes before the decision was finalized, two of the gymnasts went to the microphone to address the board.
"You're eliminating a positive and creating a negative," said senior Danielle Rutschilling, adding that gymnastics "teaches us so much more than gymnastics skills."
"It's just a clash of opinions," said senior Janae Ahlers, alternately looking at Seas and Keller in the eyes as she spoke. "I don't understand why two men have more weight than 1,284 people."
The girls received the loudest applause of the evening.
Keller then went to the microphone, where he praised Rutschilling and Ahlers for their poise, but also said he will not back down from the travel and schedule issues. The team's closest competitor this year was Piqua.
Keller decided a year ago when Columbus Grove and Delphos St. John's high schools dropped their gymnastics programs to do the same thing in Coldwater. Seas agreed, but granted the program a one-year reprieve.
"I'm not going to back down from that," Keller said.
Keller's comments were met with a cold silence before a delayed smattering of polite applause broke out.
Seas also told the crowd nothing has changed from a year ago when the decision was first made to get rid of gymnastics. Difficult decisions like this one are part of running a "fair, accountable and responsible" district, Seas said.
"Here we are today and my thoughts have not changed," Seas said.
Earlier in the meeting, a number of parents offered reasons why the program should be spared.
Kim Hess reviewed the district's guidelines for canceling athletic programs. Those criteria say a sport can be dropped if no coach can be found, if the team has no adequate facility, if the team does not have enough participants to meet Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) standards or if the school's league drops the sport.
"We do not see where we violate any of them," Hess said.
The Midwest Athletic Conference does not recognize gymnastics as a league sport, but never has in the history of the Coldwater program.
"Our athletes may not be Olympic gymnasts, but we've never had a Brett Favre or Shaquille O'Neal either, have we?" Georgia Rindler said.
School district officials have offered the gymnasts the opportunity to form their own club and use the school's OHSAA membership to participate in post season events. Diller and parents say that option would lead to more travel and more time the girls must invest in their sport because the closest adequate training facility is in Tipp City.
Relegating the team to club status would likely mean fewer girls would participate, Diller said.
"The club plan targets only highly-skilled gymnasts," Diller said. "It would exclude a majority of our gymnasts."
Seas, in a written timeline of the year long gymnastics controversy, said there could be an option to outfit a training center locally that would reduce the extra time and travel burdens club gymnasts would face. Breakaway RecPlex in Celina is "very interested" in buying the equipment and working with the Coldwater girls as well as expanding the fitness facility's existing gymnastics program, Seas said.