Editor's Note: This is part one of a four-part series on the disappearance of men's gymnastics in the United States.
When a male gymnast dismounts from his routine, he’s looking up at the scoreboard hoping for that particular number.
Ever since 2006, the scoring system for men’s gymnastics has changed into a more complex process where there’s two different categories and mindset beyond the number 10. In women’s collegiate gymnastics, the goal is to hit a perfect 10, but in men’s gymnastics it’s much more arduous.
That mindset in men's gymnastics has led to the atmosphere of boys and men’s gymnastics.
“[The scoring system] isn’t like basketball where you can track the points as they’re made,” said Ames native and male gymnast Ben Eyles. “The judges look at minimal things like pointing your feet or a bend in the knee, stuff that spectators probably can’t see. At the end of the routine though, both the spectators and the actual gymnast are wondering what their score is because neither one of them has zero idea."
Instead of the perfect 10 like collegiate women’s gymnastics, the scoring is divided into difficulty and execution. The execution score starts at 10, while the difficulty score adds all the skills that will be shown in the routine.
On the execution side, a score of 10 is perfect and is what gymnasts strive to reach in each routine. On the difficulty side, that's when the complexity comes in because depending on the skills that are used in the routine is how many points are added to those 10 execution points.
Some gymnasts have a total of 14 and some have 15 points to start their routine. Throughout each routine, the judges will deduct points based on small things like pointing feet or bending knees to come out with your total score.
For Eyles, his goal in college is to start with a score of 15. Then, Eyles is hoping that deductions bring the score down to about a 14, which would be a great score for collegiate men's gymnastics.
Eyles has envisioned the feeling of landing that perfect routine and sticking it at the end numerous times during his career as a gymnast. He will be heading to the University of Minnesota next fall, but remembered when he started this sport he didn’t imagine himself going to school for gymnastics.
“I was a soccer player at a young age, but realized that wasn’t the sport for me,” Eyles said. “Then, I went to a summer camp in Iowa City and fell in love with the sport of gymnastics.”
Eyles is not just one of the few male gymnasts in college, but one of the few male gymnasts period. The decline in the sport started in high schools and carried into colleges, but the statistics don’t lie.
In the year of 1978, the United States had 1,279 high schools and 29,943 boys participating in high school boys gymnastics. There were also 32 states that had at least one school competing in the high school level.
Fast forward to the year 2016-17, the United States has 117 high schools and 1,894 boys competing in boys gymnastics at the high school level. From 32 states in 1978 to eight states in 2016-17, there’s been a drastic decline in men’s gymnastics.
Why did the sport drop significantly over the past 40 years? Lack of interest? Time consuming? The answers have never been clear on the disappearance of a sport that can teach life lessons and other skills that can be used throughout a childhood and adulthood.
“Gymnastics is a sport that can teach you both individual and team aspects,” Eyles said. “You always want your team to do well, but you as an individual need to perform well to make that happen. It’s a sport that can teach you two of the most important traits of your life.”
For Eyles, gymnastics has changed his life for the better. It has taught him the ups and downs of a sport and how to handle each situation that’s thrown his way.
The biggest obstacle he faced was competing once he reached the high school level because Iowa hasn’t had boys gymnastics in high school since 1975. The reason behind that departure from the high school level hit Russ Telecky — a former boys gymnastics coach at Cedar Rapids Washington High School in the 1960s and 70s — hard.
Telecky said the Iowa High School Athletic Association removed boys gymnastics from its sports because of liability issues and insurance related concerns. Overall, it was focused on possible injuries that could occur throughout the sport.
Iowa is not the only state that’s dealing with this issue because there are plenty of states around the country that closed off the sport due to liability concerns. Nebraska men’s gymnastics coach Chuck Chmelka brought up how this decision has affected the future of this sport.
“I don’t understand why boys' gymnastics was cut because of liability issues when football is just as dangerous,” Chmelka said. “I mean, gymnastics does have its fair share of injury concerns, but what sport doesn’t? There’s always risk when playing a sport no matter what level you’re on.”
Chmelka said he’s fortunate to be able to coach at Nebraska, but is passionate about the topic because he wants to see men’s gymnastics increase in numbers in the next couple of years.
Since the sport was cut on the high school level, there had to be another way to gain interest in boys gymnastics without the ability to compete for their high schools. That’s when private clubs began to skyrocket in the late 1970s and early 80s.
Telecky opened up his own private club in Cedar Rapids in 1973 to give male gymnasts an opportunity to compete at a high level and strive for a college scholarship. Those types of gyms are open throughout Iowa and the United States.
“There was a need for private clubs to open during those times because boys couldn’t use their high school teams anymore,” Telecky said. “[These private clubs] were needed for the continuation of this sport."
Eyles used to practice at Chow’s Gymnastics & Dance in West Des Moines at the beginning of his career, but found a new location in Ankeny that worked better for his schedule and his mindset. He’s currently a Level 10 gymnast at Triad Gymnastics, while also coaching a mostly girls classes and the small amount of boys classes at Success Gymnastics in Ames.
The private clubs are a necessity for the growth of boys gymnastics because the high schools either don’t exist or don’t have the competition needed to reach college scholarships.
Connor Adamsick, a gymnast at Nebraska, said his high school in Illinois had a boys gymnastics team, but he never joined because of the competition.
“Honestly, the private club meets are much more competitive than high school meets,” Adamsick said. “It’s great to see the sport in my high school because it makes other boys interested in the sport that they might not know about because it’s not at the high school.”
In the 2016-17 school year, the state of Illinois has about 44.4 percent of the total high school teams in the country. Illinois has 52 high schools that have a boys gymnastics program and the United States had a total of 117.
Adamsick’s teammate at Nebraska, Chris Stephenson, said his high school didn’t have a team, but honestly he likes the system at the private club. He enjoys the competition and the opportunity to compete with similar gymnasts in the Level 10 category.
Being a part of a team within a private club does have its ups with competition and more time with the coaches, but it does have some negatives. Some of these negatives are big enough to scare off some gymnasts from ever truly competing in the sport.
One of the negatives is injuries. It happens in every sport, but with gymnastics it can ruin confidence and any type of work being done. A gymnast's sophomore and junior years of high school are two of the most important seasons to be recruited, but Eyles wasn’t able to showcase his talents because of two injuries.
In 2016, Eyles got grip lock while on the high bar and broke his wrist. After being out for his sophomore season, he broke his ankle after landing wrong on a dismount in 2017, ending his junior season as well. Even though both injuries were horrible, Eyles hated his wrist injury.
With lower body injuries like a knee or ankle, Eyles was still able to work out on the rings, high bar, pommel horse and parallel bars because he used his upper body most of the time during his routines. When he dismounted from the events, he would land into a foam pit that wouldn’t injure his ankle or knee.
The wrist injury was horrible for him. He couldn’t do anything because each event involved putting pressure on the hands or wrists. For the recovery time, Eyles was forced to only practice on the trampoline and jump into a foam pit.
“Being injured during those times was tough because you’re doing the same activity over and over again,” Eyles said. “My love toward the sport and the progress I made as a gymnast is what pushed me to fight through the injury and be a better gymnast afterwards as well.”
Along with the injuries, the two Nebraska gymnasts and Eyles agreed that gymnastics practice takes up a lot of time throughout the week, but the problem is that it’s not in the high school gym. It’s in a city about 45 minutes away from their homes, with none of their high school friends.
“I will admit it was hard to see all my high school friends being done with practice at 4:30 or 5 and heading out for dinner,” Eyles said, “while you’re in your gymnastics class about 45 minutes away from school and won’t get out until 8 or 9 that evening.”
Eyles said gymnastics is one sport where you have to either be all in or not at all because there isn’t room in the middle. The amount of time a gymnast commits to practicing and competing each week is too much not to enjoy the sport and the people at the gym.
That’s the thing every single coach and gymnast said they love this sport. After a couple of weeks of trying gymnastics, each of these coaches and gymnasts fell in love and the rest is history.
Their journeys throughout their childhood leading to college were all different with injuries and roller coaster rides. But in the end, they all reached their dreams as a male gymnast.
They each received a college scholarship.
UPDATE: The story has been updated as of 12:30 p.m. on 4/17/18 to reflect corrections to the scoring system.