Vanessa James left her mark at Malden High as a competitive gymnast, a three-time Globe All-Scholastic selection who led the squad to the Greater Boston League title her final season.
Her return home this season, as the Golden Tornadoes’ first-year coach, was even more rewarding: James directed the program to its first GBL crown since her senior year, in 2001.
“It feels really good to be able to give back in this way,’’ said James, who went on to a four-year career at the University of New Hampshire, serving as cocaptain her senior year.
“It’s always something I’ve been good at, and it’s awesome that I can share my knowledge about the sport with them.’’
The Golden Tornadoes (6-1 overall, 4-0 GBL) secured the league title with a narrow 117.975 to 117.45 victory over Medford on Jan. 24.
“Amazing,’’ said senior captain Alana Casey, a four-year varsity member. “The whole season we kind of were hoping that we would get to be GBL champs. But you can’t even describe the feeling now that it actually happened.’’
“I was surprised, because we had never been this good before,’’ she said. “But I wasn’t surprised by everyone’s performance because everyone was trying all season long and they all put in a lot of effort.’’
Malden, a coed team, fielded a roster with six boys and nine girls.
“When I started gymnastics freshman year, it was pretty much only me,’’ said senior Joel Stevenson.
“I was like the only boy on the team. It was not that fun because there was no one really to relate to, no one to talk to. But then I talked to a couple of friends sophomore year and got them to join, too.’’
Stevenson was motivated to join by his father, a former gymnast.
“I was always fascinated by flipping,’’ Stevenson said. “In eighth grade, I learned how to do a back tuck and I loved it. So my gym teacher told me about the gymnastics team and I was like, ‘I’m going to do it.’ ’’
Malden, according to James, has always been supportive of a coed team.
“[The boys] were on the team when I competed, too,’’ said the coach, now a second-grade teacher at the Salemwood School in the city. “But I used to bribe them. . . . They like to dance, break dance, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, I can teach you how to flip. I can teach you how to hold handstands longer.’ ’’
Fellow GBL members Cambridge and Medford also field coed teams.
“It’s just become something in our league that’s accepted and everyone’s supportive of it,’’ added James. “I don’t ever worry about trying to balance it out, three girls and three boys in every event or anything like that.’’
Malden does not run a youth gymnastics program. And because of lack of space at the high school, the varsity squad practices at one of the middle schools. But the Golden Tornadoes followed the lead of James.
“If you understand the skills and what girls and guys might be going through doing different things, I think it helps being able to explain it and relate to it,’’ said Casey of James.
The toughest challenge was getting started.
“The toughest part for the team, I think it was just the beginning of the season,’’ Casey said. “Because we had to adjust to a new coach and new teammates and trying to get it all figured out. That definitely was the toughest part of it.’’
Now, there are mixed emotions.
“I’m proud of everyone and I’m jealous of the freshmen on the team,’’ Casey said. “Because they get to spend another three years doing it. So it’s definitely kind of bittersweet knowing that this is my last year.’’
Stevenson, though, departs with satisfaction. “No, it’s perfect,’’ he said. “We worked all four years and then the final year we finally won.’’
Now James has set the bar high. Six seniors will graduate, four of whom who have been on the team for consecutive years.
“Oh my goodness, I know,’’ James said, with a laugh. “Nowhere to go from here. Have to maintain this now.’’