SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — For 30 years Les Coin was a stalwart leader in the South Dakota high school gymnastics community. Now, he’s trying to process the abrupt end of gymnastics in Sioux Falls.

“It hurts,” Coin told KELOLAND News on Thursday. “I don’t even know if I’ve even really dealt with it yet just because I’ve been trying to keep myself busy and not think about it. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to my kids.”

Monday the Sioux Falls School Board voted to tentatively adopt a budget for the 2023-2024 school year that cuts gymnastics entirely. The decision comes a month after both coaches and gymnasts were told that there was a possibility of removing the sport. Coin, head coach of both Lincoln and Washington High School’s teams, said that he and Kevin Knapp, the head coach of Roosevelt and Jefferson High Schools gymnastics teams, had heard nothing from the school board in the months leading up to the decision.

Les Coin and LHS gymnast Anna Leuning.

“We had requested meetings to come up with solutions… But there was never that discussion,” Coin said.

Prior to the start of the 2022-2023 season, Coin and Knapp were informed of a potential partnership between the district and All American Gymnastics Academy to provide all four high schools with a place to practice. Coin said he was told all of the equipment, some of which was paid for through fundraising by parents, would be given to the private gymnastics club and that eventually an addition would be built onto the space devoted entirely to high school gymnastics at the gym.

“We were told that it was going to be, we’d have to work out in All American for one year, and we’d be practicing at 5:30 in the morning, or seven at night and we would do this for one year,” Coin explained.

That potential move cost Lincoln High School their assistant coach who would no longer be able to assist the team at those times as well as several gymnasts who had no means of transportation from Washington and Jefferson to the far south side of the city.

Eventually the solution was dropped after the coaches refused to sign the contracts without a guarantee of what that would mean for their equipment and if or when this additional facility would be built. Between the fall of 2022 and the spring of 2023, Coin said he had no indication that the sport was at risk of being cut entirely.

“All of a sudden, a couple of weeks after a state tournament Kevin and I were pulled into a meeting and told that the budget committee is recommending cutting gymnastics,” Coin said.

‘Their mind was already made up’

The Sioux Falls School Board and spokespeople for the district cited declining participation numbers as one of the reasons to cut the sport. Coin said that in his 20 years coaching in the Sioux Falls School District, the number of kids participating in the sport was never an issue.

“I don’t think it should be based on numbers because that’s not what this work is about,” Coin said. “You can have 150 kids on the sideline of a football game, but how many kids actually play? You know how many kids play on my team? 100%. Not many sports can say that.”

The district told KELOLAND News in March that the declining number of girls in the sport was being compared to new sports being offered where they were seeing greater interest.

“Softball has shown strong participation rates. Because of the increased participation of over 60 students this year, the Board will consider approval for a girls’ wrestling coach,” multimedia specialist Tory Stolen said.

Coin pushed back on the participation numbers citing the structure of gymnastics as well. For each event Coin explained that only five girls compete in addition to one all-around gymnast. Meaning that in smaller teams, everyone gets a chance to participate in every competition.

“I’ve had as little as seven kids on my team in Rapid City and we were state champions,” Coin said.

Lincoln High School gymnastics team.

In addition to participation, the district and the school board cited the cost of the program as a need to cut the sport.

“The annual cost for gymnastics is approximately $95,000, with an estimate of approximately an additional $260,000 – $300,000 of new equipment needed in the short term and more over the next several years if offered at each high school,” Stolen told KELOLAND News in March.

But Coin said that some of the equipment at Lincoln was being paid for by the parents of the gymnasts.

“When I first started it was foam block floors when I moved here to Sioux Falls. So then we’re like, ‘No, no, no, we need a spring floor.’ And the parents said, ‘How much?'” Coin said.

Coin said that in his time with Lincoln, parents have paid for two vaults and the payment and building of two floors. He also added that if the equipment is taken care of properly, it can last years before it needs a replacement.

So, what then does district funding go to for the sport?

“It must mainly go for coaching and travel and things like that, because there’s really not equipment (cost),” Coin said.

During discussions for the new budget, some parents and coaches suggested fundraising the money needed to keep gymnastics in the district. School board vice president Carly Reiter said that, “…we need to be able to provide a program at a level that is fully funded not relying on parents, students or private donors to keep it going.”

Some sports, like powerlifting, are mainly funded through fundraising efforts by athletes and parents. Reiter told KELOLAND News on Thursday that gymnastics could not do the same because it is a sanctioned sport through the South Dakota High School Activities Association unlike powerlifting which is a club sport.

“All sports/activities have some level of fundraising involved while club sports frequently have a fee to play/participate which helps pay for the expenses of that activity,” Reiter wrote via email.

Throughout the last month, Coin and current and past gymnasts and coaches from all over South Dakota attended the school board meetings to convince the board to save their sport. Coin said he felt as though the board kept “moving their target” as supporters offered solutions for participation and funding.

“It makes you feel like their mind was already made up and that this was just a process that just had that play its way out until the hearing for the budget,” Coin said.

What’s next for gymnastics in South Dakota?

With the cutting of gymnastics from the Sioux Falls schools just months after Rapid City cut their gymnastics program, other high schools in the state automatically lose four more competitors. For O’Gorman High School, they lose their main source of local competition.

“They (O’Gorman) have to find new meets. They have to find new triangulars, new duels. There’s no longer a Lolly Forseth Invitational,” Coin said.

The Lolly Forseth Invitational, named after South Dakota Hall of Famer Lolly Forseth, was an annual city-wide competition between all of the Sioux Falls schools.

Now, with the state’s largest district cutting the sport, Coin fears the impact the decision will have on smaller schools in the coming years.

“I would not be surprised if we’re sitting here three years from now saying, ‘Oh, they just cut the sport in the state,'” Coin said. “Because if Sioux Falls can’t make it work, if Rapid City can’t make it work, how do you expect places like Chamberlain, Britton-Hecla, you know those small towns, to make it work?”

Coin is also worried about what will happen to the current gymnasts, especially in middle school, who were looking forward to enjoying the sport in an affordable way.

“I don’t want to say gymnastics is an elite sport or golf isn’t a sport, but they’re both very expensive,” Coin said. “For families, it comes a time to where they have to choose: am I going to spend $400 or $500 a month on gymnastics when my kid can go high school for free?”

Several middle school gymnasts that KELOLAND News spoke to were hoping to join the high school program in the fall to relieve their families of the financial burden that club gymnastics can be for some. Coin hopes that gymnasts in Sioux Falls can find other high school activities to participate in now that their primary sport has been cut.

When asked whether he thinks gymnastics could be revived in the district years down the line, Coin was hesitant.

“Not from what the school board said. It’s pretty much– I mean, it’s pretty much a done deal,” Coin said. “Each school has a gymnastics room so that’s going to be taken over by whatever sports [or] activities that they put in there… We wouldn’t have a home to come back to.”