By Timothy L. Hudak
Sports Heritage Specialty Publications
4814 Broadview Rd.
Cleveland, Ohio 44109
The history of the state gymnastics tournament is perhaps the most unique of all state athletic tournaments. A brief look at the current tournament program shows that individual champions have been crowned since 1973, with team champions being named since 1977. It also shows that all of the champions have been girls, i.e., that this sport is one of those in which only the girls participate, at least in Ohio. But did you know the rest of the story?
The full story of Ohio’s high school gymnastic championships actually dates back much further than 1973, almost half a century to be exact. The first state gymnastics tournament was held in 1926 in Delaware, Ohio. Only five schools participated in that tournament: Columbus North, East and Central high schools, Cleveland West and Cincinnati Walnut Hills. These schools participated in six different events: high bar, Indian clubs, side horse, flying rings, tumbling and parallel bars. Columbus North High School took the first championship, with Columbus East a close second.
Between 1926 and 1932 the Columbus area schools would dominate the sport, with North High School capturing three state titles, and Central and East high schools taking two each. These schools also dominated the runner-up spot, until Cleveland’s East Tech finished second in 1932. From then on, until the last gymnastics tournament was held in 1937, East Tech was the dominant school in this sport, winning the last five championships. (Those five titles helped East Tech to claim the unofficial title of “Champion of Champions” for the first 50 years of the OHSAA. The Scarabs by 1957 had won a total of 19 state championships in all sports, one more than Lakewood High and its 18 titles.)
There were never more than 13 schools in this competition, the vast majority being from either the Columbus or Cleveland areas, with a low of only four participating schools in 1933. No doubt the fact that the nation was in the middle of the Great Depression contributed to the small number of participating schools, and probably to the tournament’s eventual termination as well.
One other fact is significant about this tournament – all of the participants were boys. No girls participated in interscholastic gymnastics, girls interscholastic athletic competition being pretty much limited to basketball in those days.
The first great star of this early era was Curtis Harmon of Columbus Central High School. In 1928 Harmon finished second on the high bar, but it was in both 1929 and 1930 that he really made his mark in leading Central High to its only two state gymnastics titles. In both years Harmon was a triple winner at the state tournament, each time taking top honors on the high bar, the flying rings and the parallel bar. Had there been an all-around champion in those days, no doubt Harmon would have won that as well.
Perhaps the best coach at this time was East Tech’s G. P. Thompson. Mr. Thompson led the Scarab gymnasts from at least 1932 to 1937, except for 1935, coaching Tech to four of is five state championships and a runner-up finish. Two of his gymnasts became multi-event state champions and went on to great careers in the world of gymnastics.
The first of these boys was Joe Giallombardo. Joe was the first person to win the same event at the state tournament three consecutive years. In 1933-34-35 he took first place in tumbling. Giallombardo also took a first in the long horse in 1934, and placed second in both the long horse and the parallel bars in 1935.
Following his outstanding high school career, Joe went to the University of Illinois, where he had one of the all-time great gymnastics careers in NCAA history. From 1938-1940 he won seven individual titles, a record that still stands (tied once since), and won the first three NCAA all-around championships those same years. Giallombardo went on to have a fine career as a high school gymnastics coach in Illinois after World War II. He is enshrined in several Halls of Fame, and in 1966 was the recipient of the Helms Hall of Fame Award, the ultimate award in the world of gymnastics.
The second of coach Thompson’s great athletes at East Tech was Paul Fina. Fina was a three-time state champion on the flying rings, 1935-37, and a two-time champion on the horizontal bar, 1936-37. Paul Fina, like Joe Giallombardo, went to the University of Illinois, where he was the 1940 NCAA all-around champion, a title that he shared that year with his fellow East Tech alumnus. Also like Giallombardo, Fina’s gymnastics career was interrupted by World War II, which prevented him from further demonstrating his outstanding abilities at both the college and world, i.e., Olympic, level.
Fast forward to 1973 and the present format for the state gymnastics tournament. Gone are the boys, replaced by the young ladies. In the earliest championships the girls vied for titles in nine individual events, but after just two years that was reduced to the present total of five: all-around, uneven parallel bars, floor exercise, vault and balance beam.
With the renewal of the gymnastics competition at the state level no team champion was named until 1977 (with all participating schools competing together as one classification). Had the organizers of the tournament known how competitive these team championships would be, they would have held them from the get-go in 1973. Talk about excitement, there is not much that can compare to the count down to the naming of girls team gymnastic champion. Seven of these titles have been decided by a point or less, and none has been decided by more than 9.05 points. From 2000 to 2002 the TOTAL difference, for all three years combined, separating first place from second was 0.9, nine-tenths of a point.
Had there been a team champion named from the beginning of the tournament, the first three championships most likely would have been won by Lakewood High School. And the biggest reason for this would have been a girl named Lori Haas. There have been many great gymnasts in Ohio over the years, and the first of these was Lakewood’s Lori Haas. Ms. Haas dominated the state tournament from 1973 to 1975 like few, if any, have done since. In all three years she won the competition on the uneven parallel bars and the vault, and in 1973 she also won the balanced beam competition. All of this combined to give her the all-around championship in 1973-74-75. Her total of 10 individual championships is second all-time in the state.
When the team championships were awarded beginning in 1977, the titles over the first few years were spread around fairly well. In the first nine years, seven different schools won the team competition. During those years, 1977-1985, Dublin High School had the most success, winning the team competition three times, and finishing as the runner-up three other times.
Beginning in 1985 we have the first school to truly dominate the gymnastics tournament. Thomas Worthington High School won the team title that year, as well as the next four, giving the school a state record five consecutive gymnastics championships. Leading the Cardinals to those state titles were Melissa Harmon, who won five individual titles in 1988 and 1989, and Natalie Lang, who won three consecutive balance beam championships from 1986-88.
The greatest success in the state gymnastics tournament has been enjoyed by the Blue Streaks of Rocky River’s Magnificat High School. The Blue Streaks won their first state championship in 1990 under head coach Julie Cleary. Since then, Joe Gura has been at the helm, and the championships have just kept piling up.
In Joe Gura’s first three seasons with the Blue Streaks they won three more state team championships, giving them four in a row. Leading the way for Magnificat during those four seasons was Kara Matus, who won three all-around championships (1990, 1991, 1993) and nine individual titles overall. Kara is the only girl in tournament history to hold an individual championship in each of the five gymnastics events. She just missed accomplishing this amazing feat in a single season, 1990, when she finished first in four of the five events, missing on her bid for a clean sweep by failing to win the vault.
After failing to win the team competition in both 1994 and 1995, Magnificat came back to win four more in succession, 1996-97-98-99. Leading the way for coach Gura’s team during those four seasons was Julie Devaty. During her high school career Ms. Devaty set a state record with 11 individual championships, winning at least one state title in every event except the vault. She won the all-around title three times, just missing becoming a four-time winner when she was beat out for the 1998 championship. She also became the first girl to win four times in the same event when she took the state championship on the balance beam in 1996-97-98-99.
The Blue Streaks failed to win the state title in both 2000 and 2001, but squeaked out a win over Columbus St. Francis DeSales in 2002, 145.875-145.750, and again in 2003 by less that two full points over Findlay High School.
Since 1990 Magnificat has won 10 of 17 state gymnastics championships. Upper Arlington High School won the title in 1995, the school’s first gymnastics state championship. All of the remaining six championships since 1990 have been won by the Bees of Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School, led by long-time gymnastics coach Joan Ganim.
The Bees won their first state title in 1994. They did not win their next title until 2000, and doubled their pleasure with another championship in 2001. For all three years the Bees had but one individual champion, Erica Trippet, who won the balance beam in 2001. (She would repeat as that champion in 2002.)
After relinquishing their title to Magnificat’s Blue Streaks in 2002 and 2003, the Bees have come back to win the last three state team titles. As in their other championship seasons, in these last three the Bees did not have one dominating gymnast, but truly won as a team by placing several girls in the top six in each event.
It has already been mentioned that Julie Devaty of Magnificat was the first girl to win four consecutive state championships in a single event. In 2006 we had our second, and, strangely enough, in the very same event. Gina Gastaldo, of West Geauga High School, won the balance beam in 2006, giving her four consecutive state championships in that event.