Esaias Gimenez shows up to the gym in the back of McGonigle Hall two hours before every practice.
“It’s a safe place to be,” the 15-year old gymnast from Freire Charter School said. “It’s a place where I would come right after school, do my homework, then I would work out with the team.”
“This is a really important place for me,” Gimenez added. “If it wasn’t for this place, who knows…I could be one of those kids on the street, doing bad things. It just helps me keep myself in a good place, and I have a lot of good people around me, too.”
Gimenez is a gymnast for Philadelphia Boys’ Gymnastics, a competitive boys’ program that Temple men’s gymnastics coach Fred Turoff started in September 2003. The team trains in the same facility as the one Turoff has coached for the past 38 years, and for Gimenez, it’s a home away from home.
The same goes for his teammate Will Pearson, 15, from Friends’ Central School, but both are well aware that their time in the gym could be running out.
Temple’s recent athletic cuts put its men’s gymnastics program on a path toward extinction, which also put the boys’ program on the same path.
“The first thought was, ‘Well…crap, now what are we going to do?’” Pearson said. “If we don’t have anyone to coach us and we don’t have a gym…I mean there are other gyms, but this is our home. This is where we go, this our team.”
“They’re well aware,” current head coach and alumni Alex Tighe said. “We don’t try to hide the elephant in the room with them. They know that in the middle of the summer that they stand a chance of not having a place to practice. “We don’t try to remind them of that every day, but we don’t hide it either.”
Philadelphia Boys’ Gymnastics is the only competitive program of its kind in the area. Turoff created it nearly 11 years ago after two other local programs – Cherry Hill Gymnastics Academy and Macy’s Gymnastics Academy in Feasterville, Pa. – closed and parents from the two extinct teams asked him if he would start a new one.
Turoff couldn’t do it at first. His team had to clear Pearson 144 after practice so it could be used for recreation. Temple stopped using the room for recreation in 2003, allowing the team to leave their equipment out at the end of the day and creating a chance for a team to train at night.
“I asked if I could start a boys’ team and if I could use it as a fundraiser for the men’s program,” Turoff said. “I was told yes, certainly go ahead, do it.”
He took things a step further a few months later, creating an annual boys’ invitational at Temple in February that brings in about 500 kids per year, giving them a chance to see college gymnastics.
Tighe is assisted by current members of the men’s program and assistant coach Patrick McLaughlin.
“It’s a learning experience on both sides,” Tighe said. “I’ve learned a lot from the kids and vice-versa.”
“Teaching them the skills and then they teach me how to deal with 8-to-12-year-old attitudes, how to interact and how to deal with them when they’re having good and bad days,” Tighe added. “It’s been a growing experience for me.”
As a junior-high student, Turoff took the bus and the subway to Temple for Friday night clinics on the fifth floor of Conwell Hall. McGonigle Hall was not yet in existence.
“It was a great time for all of us in the [Philadelphia Junior High Public League,]” Turoff said. “Being in junior high and high school to get to together with the college guys and work out.”
When Turoff returned to Temple as a student-athlete in the mid-60s, the clinics had stopped, but they weren’t lost on him.
Turoff was hired as Temple’s head coach in 1976, and after contact with local coaches, decided to bring the clinics back in order to help promote gymnastics. It took a switch from Friday nights to late Sunday mornings and six years to get going, as Turoff was a bit preoccupied with something else.
“I was busy learning how to be a head coach for six years,” Turoff said.
The clinics were open to kids five and older, giving them access to an adequate facility while also helping with fundraising as a “low cost event for local kids.” According to Turoff, the clinics brings in $4,000 to $6,000 per year for both the men’s and women’s teams, originally at a charge of $5 an hour for two hours, now $10 for an hour and a half.
“[The clinics] allows the kids to come in and train in a good facility and to see Temple University,” Turoff said. “Some of these kids that come in wind up being Temple students because of their exposure to the university.”
Nick Tricome can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @itssnick215.