Spotter shortage

  • Article by: JIM PAULSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 16, 2012 - 10:55 PM

Difficult routines require strong and experienced spotters, and fewer males are available to protect the gymnasts.


Eden Prairie assistant gymnastics coach Evan Eklin spotted eighth-grader Emily Fenske on the uneven bars, as, from left, Cassidy Steidle, Aspen Kurth and Sara Mehlhaus watched. Finding qualified male spotters has become a problem, especially because there has been no boys’ high school gymnastics in Minnesota since 1991.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

Evan Eklin stands next to the landing mat, eyes fixed on the far end of the runway, waiting for a gymnast to begin her approach to the vaulting table.

His outward demeanor projects calm as he determines angles and variations. But his mind anticipates the myriad things that can go wrong: a poor angle of approach, misplaced hands on the vaulting table, an under- rotation on a somersault.

The vault might not be perfect, but because of Eklin and those like him, errors will remain small, allowing the gymnast the best chance for success and, most important, the chance to do it all over again.

Eklin, 50, an assistant gymnastics coach at Eden Prairie, is better known in gymnastics parlance as a "spotter." Considered the sport's safety nets, spotters are trained as the last line of defense between a gymnast and the unforgiving nature of physics if their flips and contortions go wrong.

But Eklin and others like him are a vanishing breed. Minnesota State High School League restrictions on when they can work with athletes, coupled with fewer trained male spotters, could hold back the quality of future performances.

"It's mostly about the safety of the gymnast," Eklin said. "That's the number one concern."

No boys in, fewer coaches out

Make no mistake: High school girls' gymnastics in Minnesota is going strong. Last school year, 2,372 girls participated in gymnastics, the nation's highest participation rate, MSHSL statistics show.

But it's strictly a girls-only endeavor. It's been more than a generation since boys have competed in high school gymnastics, the victims of dwindling participation as other sports gained popularity. The league ended its sponsorship of the state meet in 1988. High school competition was abandoned altogether in 1991.

The decline has rippled into the ranks of coaching, which in all sports draws heavily from former athletes. Fewer boys in gymnastics has meant fewer male coaches later on.

"The fact that there is no longer high school gymnastics for boys is an extreme detriment to our sport," St. Cloud Tech co-coach Colleen Stark-Haws said.

Familiar faces getting older

Go to a large high school meet and it's the same faces putting girls through their paces, setting up equipment, always watching for potential catastrophe. Those faces are getting older.

Eklin, a former high school gymnast and coach, has been assisting at Eden Prairie for more than a decade. Others such as Mike Lantz, a former gymnast for Eklin at Robbinsdale, and longtime coach and spotter Charlie Aydt have traveled from school to school over the years, taking spotting jobs as they become available.

"We're kind of guns for hire," Lantz said.

Many women fill the spotting roles with no drop-off in safety, but many coaches agree that the lack of men -- and the size and strength they provide -- is troubling.

Suzanne Hecht, a doctor at the Institute for Sports Medicine and physician for the University of Minnesota women's gymnastics team, said men have physical advantages as spotters.

"On average, men have greater upper-body strength than women," Hecht said. "That doesn't always hold true in individual circumstances but, on average, men are usually taller and stronger."

As longtime Bloomington Jefferson/Kennedy coach Leslee Wright put it: "For my size, I'm not comfortable spotting some of the skills the girls do now."

Eklin said the focus is to protect the gymnasts. League rules prohibit coaches from working with gymnasts in the offseason, save for a seven-week window in the summer. He believes that makes it difficult to attract men to high school gymnastics as coaches and spotters.

"Since our jobs aren't full-time and we can't spend time coaching in the offseason, it's hard to train spotters," Eklin said. "We don't do too much on the floor early in the season."

Eden Prairie senior Mackenzie Dent is one of the top gymnasts in the state. Club-trained until 11th grade, she said she was startled by the lack of men spotters in the high school ranks.

"I grew up with male spotters," Dent said. "So I feel comfortable with a male because they're stronger. I rely on Evan a lot. I look at other teams that don't have any men spotting and I wonder how they do it."

Some point to better equipment and an emphasis on fundamentals that have ensured the sport is still thriving despite the drop in men as spotters.

"I don't see it as a gender issue," said Tony Brough, a former University of Minnesota gymnast and current gymnastics judge. "It comes down to offseason training, practicing in the proper progression, and competing the right way. I don't see this change as a problem. It's just different."

Northfield co-coach Melissa Bernhard, who has guided the Raiders to back-to-back Class 2A championships, believes a trained eye is more vital than physical strength.

"Much of spotting is confidence and the time to work on it," she said. "At clubs, the male coaches get to work with the gymnasts year-round. At high schools, the number of male spotters who know anything is getting fewer and fewer."

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Milwaukee 115 FINAL
Orlando 100
New York 82 FINAL
Indiana 103
Denver 69 FINAL
Memphis 99
Chicago 106 1st OT 0:20
LA Lakers 104
Montreal 1 FINAL
NY Rangers 0
Winnipeg 2 FINAL
Philadelphia 5
Boston 5 FINAL
NY Islanders 2
Arizona 3 FINAL
Toronto 1
Dallas 6 FINAL
Ottawa 3
Detroit 1 FINAL
Tampa Bay 5
Columbus 2 FINAL
Florida 3
Nashville 4 FINAL(SO)
St. Louis 5
Minnesota 1 FINAL
Calgary 0
Buffalo 2 FINAL
Edmonton 3
Anaheim 3 FINAL
San Jose 6
DePaul 72 FINAL
Providence 83
Michigan State 71 FINAL
Rutgers 51
Boston Univ 67 FINAL
Army 71
Fla Atlantic 61 FINAL
Charlotte 86
Youngstown St 87 FINAL
Detroit 93
East Tenn St 55 FINAL
Furman 59
Saint Louis 60 FINAL
George Mason 68
USC Upstate 78 FINAL
Jacksonville 65
High Point 72 FINAL
Liberty 53
Central Conn St 55 FINAL
Long Island 67
Western Ky 56 FINAL
Louisiana Tech 69
Dayton 64 FINAL
Massachusetts 66
Chattanooga 72 FINAL
Mercer 75
Wofford 58 FINAL
UNC Greensboro 42
Maryland 56 FINAL
Ohio State 80
Old Dominion 71
Fair-Dickinson 65 FINAL
Robert Morris 87
Mount St Marys 67 FINAL
St Francis-NY 73
Bryant 68 FINAL
St Francis-PA 75
Northern Ky 75 FINAL
Stetson 85
Coll of Charleston 70 FINAL
Towson 74
Western Carolina 85 FINAL
Va Military 70
Sacred Heart 64 FINAL
Wagner 75
Lipscomb 62 FINAL
Fla Gulf Coast 78
Kennesaw St 67 FINAL
North Florida 86
Appalachian St 46 FINAL
Ga Southern 83
Holy Cross 54 FINAL
Loyola-Maryland 64
Eastern Ill 51 FINAL
UT Martin 81
Jacksonville St 82 FINAL
Belmont 103
Connecticut 58 FINAL
Cincinnati 70
Rider 58 FINAL
Saint Peters 49
SIU Edwardsville 75 FINAL
SE Missouri St 61
Marshall 69 FINAL
Southern Miss 54
Tenn Tech 56 FINAL
Tennessee St 64
Middle Tennessee 58 FINAL
TX-San Antonio 69
Ill-Chicago 65 FINAL
Milwaukee 71
Weber State 67 FINAL
North Dakota 60
Denver 54 FINAL
North Dakota St 61
IUPU-Ft Wayne 66 FINAL
South Dakota 55
Louisiana 85 FINAL
South Alabama 89
Ark-Little Rock 75 FINAL
Arkansas State 65
Georgia State 88 FINAL
Texas-Arlington 74
Troy 55
Portland 46 FINAL
Gonzaga 64
Kentucky 69 FINAL
Missouri 53
Eastern Ky 78 FINAL
Murray State 85
Texas-El Paso 71
Idaho State 76 FINAL
Northern Colorado 79
Grand Canyon 78
Chicago State 62 FINAL
Utah Valley U 78
Colorado 98 FINAL
USC 94
Cal Poly 57 FINAL
UC Irvine 67
Hawaii 84 FINAL
CS-Northridge 73
Pepperdine 50 FINAL
Pacific 43
Santa Clara 64 FINAL
San Diego 69
Utah 59 FINAL
UC Santa Barbara 64 FINAL
UC Davis 70
Montana 73 FINAL
Portland State 54
Montana State 59 FINAL
Sacramento St 75
Long Beach State 91 FINAL
Cal State Fullerton 85
Loyola Marymount 54 FINAL
St Marys-CA 68
San Francisco 70 2nd Half 1:15
BYU 72
California 68 2nd Half 2:00
Washington St 65
Louisiana 47 FINAL
South Alabama 57
Saint Josephs 51 FINAL
Saint Louis 52
Appalachian St 77 FINAL
Georgia Southern 74
Niagara 58 FINAL
Saint Peters 65
Old Dominion 80 FINAL
FIU 67
Southern Miss 65 FINAL
Marshall 67
Georgia State 45 FINAL
TX-Arlington 57
Ark-Little Rock 69 FINAL
Arkansas State 70
Troy 90
Pittsburgh 45 FINAL
(17) Duke 62
(6) Tennessee 73 FINAL
(10) Kentucky 72
(24) Oklahoma 81 FINAL
(14) Texas 84
Nebraska Omaha 59 FINAL
IUPU-Ft Wayne 70
UC-Riverside 68 FINAL
CS-Northridge 56
Army 65 FINAL
Boston U 40
New Orleans 40 FINAL
Nicholls 56
Charlotte 68 FINAL
Florida Atlantic 71
Towson 54 FINAL
Delaware 72
Hofstra 66 FINAL
Northeastern 45
New Hampshire 56 FINAL
Maine 87
Albany 89 FINAL
Vermont 48
Hartford 60 FINAL
Stony Brook 58
UNC-Wilmington 62 FINAL
William & Mary 67
Clemson 62 FINAL
Wake Forest 64
Alabama 54 FINAL
(1) South Carolina 85
(23) Syracuse 58 FINAL
(8) Louisville 78
Missouri 68 FINAL
Florida 52
Iona 66 FINAL
Fairfield 77
Manhattan 38 FINAL
Marist 77
NC State 63 FINAL
Virginia 71
(4) Notre Dame 74 FINAL
Virginia Tech 50
(22) Rutgers 58 FINAL
Purdue 49
(5) Maryland 91 FINAL
Michigan 65
Milwaukee 58 FINAL
Cleveland State 67
Wright State 108 FINAL
Oakland 89
Jacksonville 64 FINAL
USC Upstate 66
North Florida 40 FINAL
Kennesaw St 46
Stetson 62 FINAL
Northern Ky 68
Loyola-Maryland 57 FINAL
Holy Cross 51
Lamar 87 FINAL
Sam Houston St 68
Fla Gulf Coast 71 FINAL
Lipscomb 49
Vanderbilt 44 FINAL
(18) Miss State 69
Western Ill 73
Abilene Christian 53 FINAL
Houston Baptist 50
Incarnate Word 54 FINAL
TX A&M-CC 63
McNeese State 78 FINAL
SE Louisiana 57
Oral Roberts 46 FINAL
South Dakota St 71
Louisiana Tech 66 FINAL
Western Ky 82
TX-San Antonio 53 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 73
Texas-El Paso 52 FINAL
UAB 67
Auburn 47 FINAL
Arkansas 52
Grand Canyon 65 FINAL
Illinois 57 FINAL
(15) Nebraska 59
(20) Iowa 102 FINAL
Northwestern 99
Utah Valley U 55 FINAL
Chicago State 60
Green Bay 67 FINAL
Valparaiso 52
Ole Miss 41 FINAL
LSU 70
Portland State 31 FINAL
Montana 72
Sacramento St 64 FINAL
Montana State 91
North Dakota 55 FINAL
Weber State 48
Ohio State 85 FINAL
Wisconsin 73
Northern Colorado 61 FINAL
Idaho State 70
San Francisco 63
St Marys-CA 56 FINAL
Loyola Marymount 49
Pacific 63 FINAL
Pepperdine 59
Cal-Irvine 61 FINAL
UC Santa Barbara 58
San Diego 64 FINAL
Santa Clara 61
UC Davis 64 FINAL
Cal Poly 72
Long Beach St 27 2nd Half
Hawaii 38


question of the day

Poll: Which of these teams is the most frustrating to watch right now?

Weekly Question





Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters