Colleen Stark-Haws — C.J. to those who know her best — sits quietly in her motorized wheelchair, watching the tumbling and twisting and balancing going on a few feet away. An aggressive form of multiple sclerosis has robbed her of the ability to move her body below her shoulders.
It’s a long way from her teenage days nearly 30 years ago when, at 14, she began teaching gymnastics and dance out of the family garage in St. Cloud. Back then she could demonstrate, work out floor exercise routines, do all the moves.
Now the disease barely allows her to shrug her shoulders or move her hands. The St. Cloud Tech gymnasts she coaches look to her husband and co-head coach, Joel, for the physical guidance.
But Stark-Haws’ mind is still straightedge sharp. Instead of showing gymnasts the right way to do things, she explains, in the smallest detail, the whats, the hows and the whys. The girls on the team work it out, with a much greater understanding of what they’re doing.
For everything MS has taken from Stark-Haws, it can’t reach her devotion to her family and her passion for gymnastics.
“I realized my husband and my child [son Eli] were my world,” she said. “And then it was gymnastics. Gymnastics gave me joy, gave me value, gave me purpose.”
‘True Stearns County form’
While Colleen observes, her husband and tireless partner in everything she does is a perpetual motion machine, in and out of practice. Joel is the spotter, the teacher, the physical guide, the gofer, the driver, the father, the do-it-all guy. If it needs to be done, he’ll do it willingly and with no sign of resentment.
“When the MS hit, Joel told me ‘You are my partner in life and in coaching. We’ll find a way,’ ” Colleen recalled.
They met at St. Cloud Cathedral High School when their older siblings, Dan and Kelly, got engaged.
“At first, we never thought about dating because it was all about Dan and Kelly,” Colleen said.
“But we formed a good friendship, had sports in common and hung around a lot of the same friends,” Joel chimed in. “I remember a lot of good, long conversations.”
By the time they were seniors, their relationship had blossomed into romance.
“We became high school sweethearts,” Joel said.
“In true Stearns County form,” Colleen added with a grin.
As college students at St. Cloud State, Joel worked simple jobs for spending money while Colleen coached a community education gymnastics program. Desperately needing some muscle to help with spotting, Colleen recruited Joel.
“He was working at Subway and I told him we had a better job for him if he was interested,” she said. “And it paid better than Subway.”
An endurance-sports athlete in high school, Joel jumped at the chance to do something different and, at the same time, work with his soon-to-be wife.
“It was a match,” he said. “I got bit by the gymnastics bug and I haven’t looked back.”
Thus began one of Minnesota’s most successful gymnastics coaching tandems.
Commitment to coaching
After coaching stints at Sartell and Sauk Rapids, Colleen was wooed by St. Cloud Tech in 1997, eight years before the onset of the MS. She accepted on the condition that Joel join her.
“They wanted her and I came with,” he laughed.
“Yeah, but it was only a year or two before Joel and I were [coaching] equals,” Colleen added.
Together, they built a program that has routinely been one of the state’s best. They’ll be making their 11th consecutive gymnastics state tournament appearance when the meet opens Friday at the University of Minnesota Sports Pavilion. The Class 2A field is more wide open than in years past, and Tech, fielding one of its deeper teams, has a fighting chance at its first team state title.
“They are such great coaches,” St. Cloud Tech junior Lara Aycock said. “She has helped me so much. C.J. is so good with words and getting you to understand. When she asks you to do something, even if you’re hurt or don’t think you can, you do it because you know she’d change places with you if she could. It really motivates you to be your best.”
The couple’s coaching acumen is recognized by their peers, as well. Together, they still play a significant role in the Minnesota Girls’ Gymnastic Coaches Association. Last year, the Minnesota State High School League honored them as the Class 2A gymnastics coaches of the year.
Both vow to stay involved in gymnastics as long as they can.
“When the MS showed up, it was a challenge to continue to make gymnastics important, but by doing that, it’s helped us to live with disease better,” Joel said. “No matter how much work it is, we love gymnastics and doing it together.”
For Colleen, as the MS progresses, gymnastics remains her lifeline to normalcy.
“My husband said he wanted to make sure we are in an environment that realizes that I’m of value,” Colleen said. “It makes me feel like I’m important. It makes me feel that I’m worth it.”