Boys’ gymnastics meets were true events at public schools throughout Massachusetts when Bill Martin competed for Newton High School in the 1960s.
The Newton co-op coach, a 1966 graduate, recalls when meets were held in front of bleachers full of students — back when there were 76 high school programs in the state at the height of the sport’s popularity.
“It was like a basketball game,” he said. “Gymnastics was mandatory in gym class back then so everybody knew it and would come and watch. Those days are gone.”
These days there are five sturdy programs that keep the torch lit for the sport in the state. Martin blames the decline on the lack of exposure to it that young students – especially boys – have in the schools as physical education curriculum changed. Most schools got rid of equipment that was large, expensive, difficult to store, and could be dangerous if used improperly.
In 2013, the MIAA considered eliminating boys’ gymnastics as a varsity sport, but relented after a vigorous push-back campaign that included the support of gold medal-winning gymnast Aly Raisman, of Needham.
Since then, the two Newton schools have combined for one co-op program, while Attleboro, Braintree, Burlington, and Lowell field teams each winter. On Jan. 27, five-time defending state champion Newton improved to 6-0 with victories against Lowell and Braintree at Newton North’s simulated-outdoor area.
On Feb. 3, Newton and Attleboro will clash in a rematch of the Jan. 21 meet at which Newton edged Attleboro 164.5-164.2. All five teams will then compete for the state championship on Feb. 7 at Newton North.
“It’s my final year, so I definitely know I want to go out strong,” said North senior Jake Forbes, who was third in the all-around at last year’s states behind Newton’s Sam Arber and Attleboro’s Andrae Butler, but has been limited due to a shoulder injury.
“I know I might not be able to do 200 percent right away, but it’s my final meet so I am going to try and do what I can to help the team.”
Forbes was part of the Newton team that romped to its fifth straight title last year with a state-record 193.4 points (Attleboro was the runnerup at 172.5). But Newton graduated 10 seniors from that team as it went from a well-stocked crew of 16 to a squad that struggles to find seven or eight competitors to fill events each meet.
So Forbes went on a recruitment tour to find athletes at the school who might not have an extensive gymnastics background, but who might have enough traits from other sports that translate. Martin said he was able to get two members of the track and field squad, and two other students who were into the obstacle-leaping skills of parkour, a discipline akin to obstacle course training, to give gymnastics a shot.
“We are lucky to have the parkour guys because they have a lot of strengths and are naturally good at the floor and the vault,” Forbes said. “They love tumbling, so it’s easier to motivate them for something that might be seen by some as more of a girls sport.”
Newton returned Adrian Michael, who was fourth at last year’s states, and floor state champion Matthew Hassan, this winter. Newton South junior Jonah Henderson, a Level 10 gymnast out of the New England Academy of Gymnastics in Marlborough, joined the high school team for the first time and has provided a big boost.
“The past few years I was working on my balance of high school and gymnastics, and this year I thought I had more free time so I could do the high school team too,” said Henderson, who Martin forecast will be a threat to challenge Butler for the all-around title at this year’s state meet.
“The high school team is different [from NEAG] because you are more connected and all working toward the same goal.”
Martin said it’s the one or two extra scorers that can make all the difference on such a small squad.
“Kids on the team have to sell it in the school,” the coach said. “They’ve got to be the ones who talk it up and get guys to come out and do it. That’s how it catches on.”
While Martin knows the sport is long past its heyday as a spectator mecca in high schools, he said he is looking forward to the nostalgic taste of that he gets every year at the state championships when fans fill portable stands in the Newton North gym and all five remaining programs come together to determine a champion.
“It’s like a mini-NCAA meet where you have all the events going on at the same time and there is a lot of cheering and a lot of noise,” he said.
It’s there where he and longtime Newton gymnastics coach Tom Steeves reaffirm why they keep coming back to Newton year after year to do their part to keep their sport going in the city.
“As long as the [athletic directors] support it, then I think these schools will be around,” Martin said. “If one more team drops it, then maybe not. But I hope it stays around for a long time.”
Scott Souza can be reached at ScottSouza@journalist.com.