Gymnasts’ choice

Kids choose their own events in Island's first ever non-gender-segregated meet.

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On Sunday, Oct. 28, Island Gymnastics hosted its 28th annual Sandcastle meet, a fundraiser and competition where proceeds benefit a designated Island cause. This year, the fundraiser supported the Voshell family. Over the summer, Eric Voshell was injured in a serious motorcycle accident. He is a member of the Oak Bluffs Fire Department, and has a daughter on the Island Gymnastics team.

In addition to supporting the Voshells, the meet also took a stance in supporting LGBTQ youth. This was the Island’s first ever non-gender-segregated gymnastics meet, meaning gymnasts don’t sign up as boy or girl, “they sign up as a child,” Island Gymnastics Coach Beth Goodell told The Times.

This is big in gymnastics, one of the most gender-separated sports in our culture. You might as well be watching two different sports.

Men compete in six events: floor, rings, pommel horse, vault, parallel bars, and high bar. Women compete in four: vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor. So the only overlap is floor and vault, but even those two events can look different from one another. Women’s floor routines include music. Men’s routines do not. In vault, women get two attempts and men get one. Another difference is attire. Men can wear shorts over their leotards; women can’t. Men can also wear pants. So in this age of gender neutrality, especially among youth, gymnastics performs a bit below the bar — no pun intended.

“The meet went beautifully,” Goodell said. “The kids didn’t really think much of it. They’re so easy for change.”

Goodell said a few of her gymnasts decided to compete outside their gender assignment, and many of the girls chose to wear shorts instead of leotards. In traditional meets, women are penalized for covering the parts of their body that the leotard exposes.

“We have to change that,” Goodell said. “Everyone should be able to wear what they’re comfortable wearing.”

Goodell believes gender separation has led to the sport’s decreasing popularity, especially among boys. There are only 11 remaining men’s college gymnastics teams, and Goodell thinks they could become completely obsolete in two to three years if nothing changes. She believes gender neutrality could revive the sport.

“We need to make a decision about the future of this sport,” she said. “This is the solution. Put it all together.”

Goodell said it’s all about strength, flexibility, coordination, and most important, timing. “It’s the toughest sport in the world, and gender has nothing to do with it,” she said.

Island Gymnastics is affiliated with USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport. Sunday’s event was unsanctioned and didn’t jeopardise the team’s status, but during regular meets, rules are rules.

“Sunday was a start,” she said. “But we have to figure out what the next step is.”

Island Gymnastics could join another league outside USA Gymnastics, where Goodell could allow children on her team to compete in the opposite gender’s events if they choose to. “If we’re not going to jump on the wave of change, we’ll end up underneath it,” she said.

Kids ages 7 to 13 participated in the Sandcastle meet. A gym from Amherst, Hampshire Gymnastics School, was also invited to compete. The gender-neutral meet was the brainchild of Ann Vexler and her daughter Talya, co-owners of Hampshire Gymnastics. Ann was a former coach of Goodell’s, and Talya was her former student.

“I think it was a start,” Goodell said of Sunday’s meet. “There were some brave kids going up there, and it was all done in a supportive environment.”