AROUND THE CHALKBOX: Hot topics in gymnastics

Saying goodbye to Elgin/Larkin and Rich Township co-ops

By Mike Considine
SGS co-publisher

 One of the best episodes of the TV show "M*A*S*H," and my personal favorite, is titled "Sometimes You Hear the Bullet."

  The plot involved a war correspondent who was a friend of the lead character, Hawkeye. The writer was working on a book with the premise that, in war, you don't hear the bullet that kills you.

  Of course, the writer takes a fatal bullet in the episode and has to reassess. He confides this to a distraught Hawkeye on his death bed, who assures his friend that he simply needs to change the title.

  Well, I heard the bullet when a couple of once-prominent girls gymnastics programs met their end recently.

  I can't truly claim Judy Redmond or Bob Todd as close friends, but they are two coaches whom I always looked forward to seeing and whom I greatly respected for the way they conducted themselves and their programs. They lit up the lives of those around them in their own ways.

  The realization that the Rich Township co-op and Elgin/Larkin co-op wouldn't be around for another year wasn't truly a shock to those of us who knew that Redmond and Todd feared that it would be their programs' fates when they finally had to stop fighting the good fight.

  For years, each of them had selflessly decided to add another year to their coaching resumes partly because of that well-grounded fear. They simply couldn't bring themselves to let their kids down. Better that they should put their own needs on hold for a few more months.

  Here's a little more insight into each, and why it's a tragedy that their work isn't being carried forward in two areas where their athletes' gymnastics backgrounds more often than not could be written on the proverbial postage stamp.

  Todd was someone I ran into more often, especially at the Larkin Invitational in early January. It became an annual stop on my Tour de Gymnastics.

  Even though most reporters shied away from it because it was a tad long, this one enjoyed it precisely for that reason. It featured a lip-sync contest after the meet but before the awards ceremony that gave the competitors a chance to just be silly and have fun -- and maybe show off some moves that weren't otherwise seen on a floor exercise mat.

  Coming after a Christmas break filled with lots of hours in the gym and few rewards, it was a welcome respite for the girls -- and maybe a few of us jaded adults.

  During the days of Bethany Fitchie and Amy Kovacs, Larkin (as the team was then known) was a 140-team and a sectional qualifier. The Royals were a force to be reckoned with at the Upstate Eight Conference and in the postseason, even for a couple years after their standouts passed into graduation.

  Todd had his well-deserved moments in the sun.

  When his team's capabilities were lower, he adjusted his expectations and worked on teaching the skills his girls hadn't had the opportunity to learn in their younger years. If that was frustrating for him, you'd never have known it from his warm smile and the respect that was evident from his gymnasts when they interacted with him.

  Todd candidly told me a few years ago exactly what I conveyed earlier in this piece, that he probably should have retired a while earlier but couldn't because he couldn't bear the thought that his program would be dropped the moment he didn't sign on for another year.

  That's essentially what happened on November 1.

  Back then, there were reasons to be optimistic, despite what seemed inevitable. Todd prayed for a young, energetic assistant who would be willing to succeed him. During my last year in Illinois, 2007, I talked to the owners of a new club in Elgin whose owners and coaches appreciated high school gymnastics. They planned to be a feeder for the Elgin/Larkin program. Unfortunately, that club lost its gym to a fire and rebuilt elsewhere.

  Who can say whether, if the cards had been dealt a little differently, whether Elgin/Larkin could have ridden out Todd's decision to spend more time with his new wife this year. Perhaps the beleagured U-46 district would have pulled the plug eventually, even if the Fitchie/Kovacs glory days were resurrected.

  All that's known is that Todd did more to sustain the program than anyone could reasonably expect, and quite a bit more.

  Unfortunately, I haven't heard from Redmond or anyone else why Rich Township doesn't have a team this season.

Whether she resigned or the district gave up the ghost, I couldn't say at this point. All I know is that, as with Todd. it's extremely commendable that Redmond battled the obstacles she did to keep the fire burning as long as she did.

  I never spoke with Redmond about her program -- as I usually was only fortunate to see her bright, shining face when she was volunteering at the state meet each year and occasionally at a Sandburg Regional or some such -- but did have an e-mail conversation with Rich Township co-op boys coach Nick Katrichis before his program was killed by the district.

  From what Katrichis told me, and my eyes showed me, it wasn't hard to extrapolate that Rich Township's girls team wouldn't be around much longer.

  My lasting image of Rich Township gymnastics in the later years was that Redmond's teams typically featured three to five girls, but all of them were meticulously prepared (a fact, no doubt, lost on the district's administration). As with Elgin/Larkin, the majority of them had spent far less than a decade in the gym honing their skills -- but there usually was one girl that was state-caliber in a couple of events (or a little better, such as three-time state vaulting champ Corynne Cooper in the mid-1990s). Regardless of their "level", it was easy to see Redmond's handiwork. There were still routines that caught your eye.

  Then, as now, I was in Texas when her best was on display.

  Many longtime gymnastics enthusiasts remember powerhouse Rich Central teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s, led by Redmond's daughters Jennifer and Jill and coached by Dan Malloy. They also featured state medalists Katie Bretz and Wendy Schroeder. For the uninitiated, Rich Central won the 1990 state title and was a runner-up in 1987 and 1989.

  My introduction to Redmond came not long before that, when I covered the club state meet at her facility in the south suburbs. She looked vaguely familiar to me on that first meeting, and I've often wondered if she competed with or against my sister's Eiche Turners teams in the late 1960s.

  Neither of them remembers the other, so I'm left to wonder. But also to miss Redmond from afar, as I will Todd.

  The co-ops at Elgin/Larkin and Rich Township may have gravitated toward the bottom of the SGS rankings in most statistical categories -- except the improvement rankings -- but IHSA gymnastics as a whole is poorer for their absence in this observer's estimation.

  Elgin/Larkin was situated in an area that was hoped to be a growth area for the sport. This gymnastics enthusiast believes that the more Jacobs', Kanelands, Woodstocks and Hampshires that can be added to the list of IHSA member schools that offer girls gymnastics in the coming years, the less likely that minimum participation rules will threaten the sport.

  One wonders whether the demise of Elgin/Larkin will make a convenient excuse for the burgeoning population in that area to go without proper representation in high school gymnastics, while future athletic directors point wrongly to Elgin/Larkin as an example of why they won't respond to the growth of gymnastics west of Randall Road.

  As for Rich Township, it's one more nail in the coffin of south suburban gymnastics. It's one more step in the sport's long descent south of the Eisenhower Expressway and that makes the loss of Redmond's program even more tragic.

  It's not as easy to forsee other schools picking up where Rich Township left off in an area where new homes and new gymnastics clubs, for the most part, aren't being built.

  Fortunately, one exception in the southwest side of Chicagoland is Plainfield North. For now, Plainfield North gymnasts are competing as individuals, but Sandy Spirk-Roeder is optimistic that a full-blown program will emerge soon.

  There's also hope out west, where EnerGym Sports Academy owner and Northern Illinois University assistant coach (former? current? I'm not sure) Andy Morreale has put together a DeKalb/Sycamore co-op team.

  Both teams seemingly have the essential ingredients for success. Their potential for longevity is something that can't be accurately assessed at this point.

  From those two seeds, hopefully, IHSA girls gymnastics will grow stronger. However, the loss of the longstanding and, to some extent, long-suffering Elgin/Larkin and Rich Township co-ops still seems preventable and unnecessary.