In one of the first years that Burlington High School offered boys’ gymnastics, its vault lineup included the future coach of one of America’s most well-known gymnasts and a future winner of a Nobel Prize.
With that type of start, it is no wonder the now-50-year-old program is still flying high.
The program, which began during the 1970-71 school year after former Springfield College gymnast and Burlington native Rick Hayes was hired as a gym teacher at the school, completed its 50th season on Wednesday. The Red Devils are one of only five boys’ gymnastics teams remaining in the entire state, but they don’t intend on closing shop any time soon.
“I feel like if Burlington ever gives boys’ gymnastics up, that would mean the end of the sport for everyone,” said Tyler Baczewski, a 2011 graduate of the program and son of former coach Richard Baczewski.
With six state titles and 16 league titles, Burlington has weathered the down years and the sport’s fluctuations in popularity. Now the team has weathered a pandemic, holding meets virtually with limited practice time.
“We just know we’re very fortunate to have a season,” said coach Jourdan Marino.
Hayes was fortunate that the school allowed him to begin the program as a first-year teacher in 1970. Much to everyone’s surprise, that team went 16-0 and won the league title. That was an era in which many high schools still offered boys’ gymnastics, so immediate success was a shock.
The success continued, with eight more league championships in the first decade. Members of those teams included Steve Nunno, who went on to coach Shannon Miller to two world championships and individual and team Olympic gold medals, and Rod MacKinnon, who won the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry. In 1987, the Red Devils won their first state championship. Hayes had his two sons on Burlington’s next state-title-winning squad in 1994.
The father-son dynamic was huge for the team, but it led to some interesting moments back at the Hayes house.
“When I started out and I wasn’t that good, we would get home at night, and he would still be trying to coach me,” Jim Hayes recalled. “I would say, ‘Dad, who else is getting coached right now? Let me do my homework.’ And then when I got older and better, I would ask him for advice once we got home, and he would answer, ‘Who else is getting coached right now? Go do your homework.’ ”
Burlington went on to win the next two state titles. Rick Hayes finished his coaching career in 2006 with a 249-40 record. In addition to four state titles, Hayes’s gymnasts earned 12 individual state championships. In 2018, the gymnastics gym at Burlington High was named in his honor.
Many alumni credit Hayes Gym for much of the program’s longevity. It’s increasingly rare for high schools to have a dedicated gymnastics area. Burlington still does, so the girls’ and boys’ teams don’t have to travel off-site for practice.
“At the time, you don’t know how special that is,” said Tyler Baczewski. “You didn’t realize how much hassle it is to actually move the equipment. We are definitely very lucky that we could go from class right to the gym.”
Hayes Gym also hosts the pipeline that has fueled Red Devils boys’ gymnastics over years: the Burlington’s recreation program, started by Hayes when he was still a student at Springfield. Offering the town’s elementary and middle school students an introduction to the sport minus the hefty fees of private clubs not only draws gymnasts who may not have taken up the sport, but keeps them engaged.
“These days, young gymnasts don’t always have that exposure to the sport and the opportunity to train that Burlington recreation provided many of us,” said Jim Fisher, a 1982 graduate and four-year member of the Red Devils. “If I wanted to put my kids through the same training now, it would cost $20,000-$30,000 a year at a private club. The recreation department and high school made it very attainable for the average family to do gymnastics.”
Using Burlington High’s gymnastics gym, the recreation department provided students an introduction to not just the sport but to the coaches. Hayes and the coach who followed him, Richard Baczewski, often put on gym shows in the schools with the high school team and taught the recreation department’s classes, giving the town’s youngest students a firsthand look.
“I joined [the recreation department’s gymnastics] because I wanted to do pull-ups — I had skinny arms,” said Marino, who competed from 1998-2002. “Before that, I had never done an organized sport. Mr. Baczewski was a warm and nurturing guy. He thought I had a future in gymnastics and encouraged me to try out for the team.”
Marino served as an assistant to Baczewski, who led Burlington to state titles in 2008 and 2012. When Baczewski retired last year, Marino became the coach. Keeping the team alive is Marino’s way of giving back to a program that helped him.
“High school can be a difficult time for many kids,” said Marino. “I think the kids who have a hard time finding a place in school have a difficult time finding a place in adulthood. I was one of those kids, but I found my place in gymnastics.”
Though Burlington hasn’t been to the top of the state podium in nearly a decade, the team doesn’t measure all of its success on that. It’s more about providing a positive venue for boys to learn life skills through gymnastics.
“While a lot of gymnastics comes under scrutiny for over-intensity and overworking kids, my experience with the Burlington program has always been positive,” said Josh Rosenberg, a team member from 2009-13. “It taught me self-discipline, it taught me how to work as a team and support others, and it taught me leadership skills I would have struggled to find elsewhere.”
“Gymnastics is one of those sports where you fail daily,” said Marino. “It teaches you the perseverance you need for life. You fail and fall and move on.”