Gymnastics gave a Minnesota town a leg up

I’m attempting to fly an airplane to the northeast today for a weekend wedding so I won’t be posting today. But since this is a pledge drive week at MPR, I guess I’ll do what my radio colleagues do and bring back some old “shows” you might’ve missed. These are some of my favorites and if it inspires you to tell me about similar people whom I should write about, all the better.

(April 11, 2003)

Gary Johnson, shown with Sadie, one of three daughters, raises corn, soybeans, cattle, horses and gymnasts on the family farm in Hendricks, MN. (MPR Photo/Bob Collins)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. A farm couple builds a sports complex in the belief that people will come. And they do. In Hendricks, MN., however, it’s not baseball and corn. It’s a farm shed and gymnastics that’s gotten people to sit up and take notice.

The town in western Minnesota — population 713 — didn’t have high school gymnastics a few years ago, partly because it didn’t have a high school. It shared school space with nearby Ivanhoe. The elementary-school-age kids went to school in Hendricks. The high school kids went to Ivanhoe, until that community decided it wanted schools for both, and pulled out of the arrangement.

Hendricks was left to start its own high school, only to get unnerved a year ago when a state representative filed legislation to dissolve Hendricks schools and force all the students to go to Ivanhoe. The legislation failed, but it shook the people’s confidence in the school’s future, especially with open enrollment. As many communities in Minnesota have learned, if you don’t have a school, you don’t have much of a future.

That’s when a couple with a little creativity, some gymnastics equipment, and a plan for a farm shed stepped in.

“We wanted to make the school unique and help market it,” Sherri Johnson told me this week. A veteran gymnastics coach, she had volunteered to coach the Hendricks girls — there’s no budget for gymnastics — but the school building wasn’t suitable for a gymnastics program. Their three daughters had been riding 40 minutes each way to the big city — Brookings, S.D. — for proper gym facilities.

Her husband, Gary, had planned to build a new “shed” to house the occasional combine and other equipment on their spread.

“I had some older gymnastics equipment sitting in the garage — some bars and a vault — and I just wanted a little corner (in the new building) for some space for the girls,” she said.

Instead, she got this.

(MPR Photo/Bob Collins)

The only evidence that the building is on a farm are the two pallets of seed corn waiting for winter to flee. But, it’s what you don’t see here that is the story: You don’t see what it apparently did for the town.

The Johnsons hired local construction workers, electricians, and plumbers, and used local businesses as suppliers. It was, to an outsider at least, a statement to the community. “We just want the town to thrive and grow,” Gary said, acknowledging that it might’ve been cheaper to buy from the chains.

The Barn Bash. (Photo courtesy of Steve Hemmingsen) 

When the building was ready in January, the Johnsons hosted the first Hendricks gymnastics meet, calling it the First Annual Barn Bash. Sherri Johnson’s team – four girls — invited the third-largest school in South Dakota — Sioux Falls Roosevelt — over for a little competition.

“When I told them that the meet would be in our barn, they said, ‘Oh, my word,'” Sherri said. But it was built with gymnasts — and combines — in mind, including the floor radiant heat for the benefit of the girls who perform in bare feet.

It was a hit with the other team and the rest of the town, and not just because the town’s mayor — Jay Nelson — led the pep squad with the classic sports-cheer instrument — the accordion.

Local construction workers cheered from the “VIP section,” some space above the bathrooms, easily accessed via a hydraulic scaffold and a ladder.

Hendricks didn’t have any medals to give out to the winners — gymnasts just throw them in a drawer anyway — but Gary Johnson, for reasons not fully explained, had purchased 1,000 anatomically correct hereford figurines which, it turns out, make swell gymnastic medals.

“It was so much fun,” Sherri said. “The girls from the other team came up and thanked us after.” So did others in the community.

“Against all odds, in a village looking to find its feet, our girls dominated,” Mayor Jay Nelson said. The squad is a fraction of the size of teams in the region — Pipestone, Marshall, and Luverne, for example.

Hendricks High gymnast Hailey Teske with coach Sherri Johnson. Photo courtesy of Sherri Johnson via the Hendricks Pioneer.

Despite a disappointing showing in the sectionals, however, gymnast Hailey Teske advanced to the state gymnastics meet in the uneven-bars competition, becoming the first new Hendricks High student to compete at a state tournament.

“She wouldn’t have even been at the school if not for gymnastics,” Sherri Johnson said. “She’d be going to school in Brookings.”

When the team returned to Hendricks, they were met by a fire truck, making a parade through town on the way to the ice cream parlor.

“Hendricks, like most small towns, has been on defense for decades,” Mayor Nelson said. “It takes some keystone moment to get people to believe in the future and go on offense. This was our keystone moment. In five weeks, Sherri took kids, some of whom had never competed, and matched schools with one-hundred times our enrollment.”

The shed — or maybe it’s a gym — has become a community center. “Go Grizzlies” signs dot a few shops in the center of town.

“People want something to cheer for,” Gary Johnson said. “There’s a community pride that hasn’t been here.”

There’s also a big bill for building the place, but times have been good in farm country lately. “We’re keeping up with it,” he said.

“Hendricks is now beginning to rehabilitate a theater closed since 1972 and we’re in talks with a national cable TV station to have two shows filmed there. Our school is starting a drum line, rifle team and Nordic skiing team. The city is offering beachfront land for a resort, should an investor come forward.” Nelson points out. “And none of this happens without Gary and Sherri turning a machine shed into a gymnastics facility.”

“Gymnastics gives kids coordination , confidence, and strength,” Sherri said.

It can do wonders for a town, too.