SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Cassidy Anderegg had no formal gymnastics training when she tried out for Lincoln High School’s gymnastics team in seventh grade.
“I taught myself how to tumble in my backyard,” Anderegg told KELOLAND News Thursday.
In Sioux Falls, there are only two options for girls to compete in gymnastics: club and high school. The former is expensive, costing thousands of dollars a year in practice and meet fees as well as apparel and gear. High school is the more affordable option, Anderegg explained.
“My family wasn’t able to afford club gymnastics. And it is a very, very expensive sport, which makes it inaccessible to a lot of people,” Anderegg said.
This week, gymnasts at Sioux Falls’ four high schools learned the sport may be cut as the Sioux Falls District works to adopt a new budget that includes a mandatory 4% budget decrease. When asked, the district would neither confirm nor deny whether the plan is to cut gymnastics, instead stating that they are working to draft and adopt a new budget by June.
Gymnasts and coaches across the state have taken to social media over the last week to show their support for the sport, calling on the school board to save gymnastics from budget cuts. In Mitchell, MEGA Gymnastics owner and Mitchell High School gymnastics coach Audra Rew has been vocal against the potential decision.
“I know their gymnastics budget is less than $100,000 for four schools. You’ve got almost a $3 million budget over there; why in the world is gymnastics taking the cut?” Rew said Thursday.
The Sioux Falls School District said the sport has seen a decline over the last ten years with fewer gymnasts at both the middle school and high school level. But in club, Rew said there has actually been an increase in participation with the program growing by nearly 200 gymnasts in the last year. Kathy Champoux, owner of Power & Grace Gymnastics in Sioux Falls, said that the largest age group for club gymnasts is currently between the ages of 10 and 14 years old. After that, there is a decline.
“The numbers decrease drastically at high school age as they drop club to do high school,” Champoux explained.
At Wings Gymnastics in Sioux Falls, many of the gymnasts compete in the club program until they are old enough to switch to high school gymnastics where they remain until graduation.
Gymnasts Jackie Erickson and Sophia Hawks were excited to start their high school gymnastics career in the fall. Now, they’re unsure if the sport will still be available and if their families will be able to afford to keep them in club gymnastics.
“I was planning on going to high school because I know a lot of good people are there and they can teach me a lot of stuff,” Hawks said. “I would like if I could go to high school gymnastics because, obviously, it would help my mom and dad.”
Amayah Patterson is a sixth grader at Ben Reifel Middle School. She was excited to join her friends in high school gymnastics next year. Now, she fears if the sport is cut, she’ll have to give up gymnastics entirely.
“I think I wouldn’t be able to do gymnastics anymore if they cut the sport,” Patterson said.
Building a family with school spirit
While high school gymnastics is more affordable than club, many of the gymnasts KELOLAND News talked to said they preferred the school sport because of the bonds they formed with their teammates.
“And just the teammates, like, they have become your sisters. They see you at your worst; they see you like at your best and they’re always cheering you on in everything you do. So, like it literally became a second family and a second home for me,” Anderegg said.
Club and high school gymnastics have a different philosophy, Rew explained. Club gymnastics takes a more individualistic approach to the sport while high school has more of a team approach. South Dakota Hall of Famer and former Lincoln High School gymnastics coach Lolly Forseth agrees.
“It’s the camaraderie and– It’s not so much about an individual winner but it’s a team. They want a team win,” Forseth said.
That camaraderie extends beyond your own team, Lincoln High School senior Blair Corcoran explained.
“With high school, it brought me to learn how to cheer for each other instead of just wanting something for myself. And it also taught me to cheer on other teams,” Corcoran said. “So, like all of Sioux Falls and basically all of South Dakota gymnastics, we all know each other, like, we’re all friends and we all cheer each other on.”
Even after her time as a competitive gymnast ended in 2018, Anderegg remained with the sport, first as an assistant coach to the Lincoln team and later as a judge.
“The Lincoln gymnastics team, it like was for me, and it still is a family. It’s such a great support system. My coaches on the team, Becca Mager and Les Coin, they are still my mentors,” Anderegg said.
‘A domino effect’
Both coaches and gymnasts within Sioux Falls attribute a decline in participation to obstacles with transportation and practice space.
Currently, Washington High School gymnasts travel to Lincoln High School to practice while Roosevelt High School gymnasts are made to travel to Jefferson High School. All of the middle school gymnasts must find their own transportation as the district no longer busses girls to practice and they are too young to drive.
“That is why Washington’s gymnastics team is so small, because like, there’s a lot of girls who they don’t drive or their parents don’t want them driving in the winter, across town to another high school, especially as it gets dark,” Anderegg said.
Bree Koepke is a gymnast at Jefferson High School where the Jefferson and Roosevelt teams not only share a practice space, but a coach as well.
“In some ways, it’s really fun because you get to become friends with not only the Jefferson team, but the Roosevelt team,” Koepke said. “But I feel bad for the Roosevelt girls because then they have to drive all the way to Jefferson and that’s time consuming with gas and stuff.”
Koepke added that the middle schoolers on the west side of Sioux Falls struggle to make it to Jefferson for practice due to the distance and the different times that both schools let out.
Data from the Sioux Falls School District shows middle school participation in the sport peaking during the 2015-2016 school year but steadily declining after. The district stopped offering a middle school program in 2020, which is when transportation to practices also ended.
Earlier this year, Rapid City Area Schools dropped its program and if the sport is dropped in Sioux Falls, Forseth is worried it could have a domino effect on schools across the state.
“If we drop and then the two Rapid City Schools are dropped, then you’ve got six major teams dropping out of Class ‘AA’,” Forseth said. “It limits their opponents, who are they going to compete against? And is it fair bringing up a small school and putting those schools in with these kids that are at a different level?”
Rew believes that if the district drops the sport, gymnasts who are able to will return to club gymnastics, preventing them from participating in other high school activities.
“I think they, the schools, especially Sioux Falls schools, they don’t realize that that’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to lose some other really great athletes for your other sports if you drop gymnastics. Keeping it in the high school allows them to do all the sports they want to in high school,” Rew said.
Erickson and Hawks both would prefer to do high school gymnastics but would rather return to club gymnastics than give up their sport.
“I can’t imagine what my life would be like without gymnastics. I can’t remember a world where I wasn’t in gymnastics, let alone where it wasn’t my entire world,” Erickson said.