Change, challenges mark ‘beautiful sport’

Mary Kiel’s high school yearbook pictures look a lot like mine — with one big difference.

The difference isn’t that Kiel grew up in Fort Collins, Colo., and I grew up in Spokane. We both graduated in 1972. The pictures in Kiel’s Poudre High School annual — all those girls with long hair parted in the middle — are just like the photos in my senior yearbook.

Kiel, though, was part of a group I never dared join.

“I was on the gymnastics team. There were three of us,” the Marysville woman said.

The Kellogg’s Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships this weekend in Everett have stirred up memories of Kiel’s days in the sport. She has tickets to some gymnastics events at Comcast Arena, and is signed on as a volunteer during the competition.

“I’m going to be in awe,” Kiel said last week, before the championships began.

Kiel, 57, grew up in the days before Title IX, just like I did.

It wasn’t until our graduation year that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 became federal law. The regulation bars discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities receiving federal funds. Discrimination covered under Title IX includes the failure to provide equal opportunity in athletics.

At my high school, pre-Title IX, our girls’ gym was much smaller and had far less equipment that the boys’ gym. Girls in those days didn’t play interscholastic basketball or softball.

Kiel remembers those issues from Poudre High School. “We didn’t have access to facilities,” she said.

“Title IX was a big topic. There was a lot of fuss about it,” Kiel said. “We had to set up our equipment and take it down. Our mats were inch-and-a half-sponge things, and they weren’t tied together.”

Even in high school, she worked out and trained with the men’s team at Colorado State University. After high school, she spent a year as a student at Colorado State before deciding she wasn’t ready for college.

She moved to Jackson, Wyo., and got a job. She soon learned the town had a very good junior high gymnastics club. “They had about 50 junior high kids. They just started it on their own,” she said.

Without a degree, she wasn’t qualified to coach. So she worked on contract, helping the junior high girls and working with the Jackson Hole High School gymnastics coach.

Kiel has a scrapbook showing the successes of those teams. “Look at all the old equipment,” she said Friday, pointing to a newspaper picture in her scrapbook.

In 1976, the Jackson Hole High School team took second place in the all-around state competition in Casper, Wyo. “We took first place in balance beam,” she recalled — as though it happened yesterday.

One standout memory doesn’t involve a breathtaking vault or a beautiful floor exercise.

“We were traveling to meets all over Wyoming,” she said. “We got stuck in a snowstorm one time in Togwotee Pass. The bus broke down. We had no food. The driver was the husband of the coach of our team.”

After spending the night in a freezing bus stuck on a nearly 10,000-foot mountain pass, Kiel said the girls’ team was allowed to use the same kind of luxury tour buses the school’s football team had been using.

Gymnastics and snow skiing came together in Jackson Hole, a ski resort town, when skiers started training on trampolines in the late 1970s. Those were the early days of freestyle skiing, with trick moves that now qualify for Olympic competition. Kiel also taught at a ski school and was involved in the trampoline training.

She didn’t make a career of gymnastics. Instead, she left Jackson Hole after two years and finished college at Utah State University in Salt Lake City. She graduated in 1981 with a degree in clothing and textiles.

In 1979, though, she had a chance to go to the World Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth, Texas. She served as a U.S. representative to the Italian team. She ate with the group, took them sightseeing and assisted in other ways. “I still have my jacket from those championships,” she said.

In Fort Worth, she saw Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who had won three Olympic gold medals in 1976 and scored a perfect 10 in Olympic competition.

It was a time of change in the sport. “There were all these changes — certification for judges, new rules and regulations — huge changes,” she said.

At the Texas competition, she believes she saw politics play a role in the sport when there was no Italian judge. She said the Italian team wasn’t scored properly in one event, and ended up pulling out of the competition.

“I saw tears coming down these girls’ faces, 14-year-olds,” she said. “That was the end of my gymnastics career.”

Kiel, who moved with her husband to Snohomish County in 1986, has her own custom drapery and textiles business.

Even though she once dislocated a shoulder doing a vault, Kiel still has a passion for gymnastics.

“It takes discipline and persistence. It’s a beautiful sport,” she said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,

Gymnasts in Everett

The 2012 Kellogg’s Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships continue through today at Everett’s Comcast Arena. Information:

Tickets: 866-332-8499.

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