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Dear Gymnastics Fans,
On behalf of Erie Gymnastics Center & Team Lightning Boosters, we welcome you to the 21st Annual Stars & Stripes Gymnastics Invitational. This event has grown from its humble roots 21 years ago into the largest Coed gymnastics competition in Pennsylvania. The weekend, we welcome over 55 quality gymnastics clubs from 5 states. We welcome over 2,100 athletes and thousands of spectators to the event this weekend. We hope you all have a great time while in Erie and enjoy some really fantastic gymnastics.
BACK STORY & HISTORY — Each year I use this Program to tell the “back story” or “History” per say of the Stars & Stripes Gymnastics Invitational. I do so each year because I feel it’s important to remember the premise and foundation on which this meet was founded. This year however I’m going to break precedence with a 21 year tradition and not tell this story, or at least not in full detail.
I would ask you to go to our webpage www.eriegymnastics.com, and then select Stars & Stripes 22 in which I tell the abbreviated story. Unfortunately the abbreviated story is not as colorful nor as powerful as the original story behind the meet. However, to put this article in a little context, I must tell a little bit of the History of this event.
In the late 1980’s and 1990’s the sport of gymnastics had a huge growth spurt in the US. Every year a couple more clubs popped up infiltrating every suburb of every city. This growth very much changed the way Clubs approached competitions. In the ’olden days’, when there were only 10 or so clubs in the entirety of Western Pennsylvania, a Gymnastics Meet was a ’Dual Meet’. A Duel Meet is something like a cities Football or Basketball League. One Team hosted a Meet at their gym and invited only one other team to come. The two teams would compete. Then a few weeks later the other team would host a meet at their gym, and the other Team would go to their place for an away meet.
However with the growth of the sport, there wasn’t time in the year to host 20 Home Meets and travel to 20 away meets. What started happening is larger clubs with large facilities started hosting “Invitationals”. They would invite maybe 10 teams to come at once over the weekend. This became popular with the Coaches in that they would be able to see a number of teams to test their athletes against all in one place rather than in the span of 10 weeks. It was popular with the Parents as well—less travel, more open weekends….
The only downfall to that was smaller clubs with smaller facilities couldn’t really host these events. The downfall to that is that hosting a ‘Home’ Gymnastics Meet was a sort of fundraiser for the home club and Team. During the meet, the booster clubs could have a snack bar, they could have a Chinese Auction, they could do 50/50 raffles….
Early in 2001, our motivated booster club pushed to host a “Big Meet”. We didn’t have the facility, but we could possibly rent a facility and equipment and try host our own “Invitational”. We spent much of that season studying how other clubs hosted meets, getting contacts for equipment companies, looking for a suitable facility.
It all came together over the late summer of 2001. We found a nice facility not too far from our gym. Penn State Behrend Campus opened a brand new Sports Complex. They were willing to rent the facility to us, however they only had one open weekend the facility wasn’t being used, and that was the first weekend in February.
As is typical with many meets, they’re sort of built around a theme—often something to do with the closest Holiday. Examples of the Presidents Day Invitational or the Sweetheart Classic near Valentines Day. What’s significant about the first week of February? Well, it’s “Ground Hog Day” of course. I’m not sure how that’s celebrated around the country, but up here in the Great White North where it snows 8 months of the year, we take that little rodent pretty seriously! There’s always an uptick on Hunting Licenses sold up here when the little bugger says “6 more weeks of Winter”.
Anyway, we were off to host the 1st Annual “Ground Hog Day” Invitational!!! That was our plan! We came up with a silly logo, and they organized some committees… Decorations, Hospitality, Awards…. We had professionally printed about 500 Invitations on post cards to invite the Teams.
Most people who don’t host these events, including us at the time, really don’t think about the stuff that goes into an event like this. They just show up, watch their child compete, and leave. In an event like this there are a ton of wheels turning. Any wheel not turning or broken car really screw things up. What we learned was there was a huge ‘financial risk’ to this venture too. We had to put deposits on Equipment, Judges, Hotel Rooms, the Facility, the Professional Printing, the Stamps…. You have to lay out a lot of cash, and then Hope that enough entries will be reached to pay for it all.
On or about September 10th 2001, we had our final planning meeting. At that meeting we addressed and stamped all of the Invitations and put them in the mail. As well, we signed checks for the Sanction, the Equipment rental, the Facility Contract, paid the printer…. It was a small fortune.
The next morning— September 11th, 2001, I woke up in the morning as normal. We (my wife & I) put our kids on the School Bus, and I sat down to drink some coffee and watch the morning news. My wife was just coming out of the shower and I yelled up to her to turn on the news. “Some Idiot flew a plane into the World Trade Center” I said. At first, I thought this was some sort of accident with a rookie pilot perhaps sight seeing around New York.
When the 2nd plane hit, I really couldn’t process what was going on. As the events of that day unfolded, we—collectively as a Nation were horrified and in disbelief. This would change our world forever! I was glued to the television that day. I think we all saw the people running in terror from the buildings. However the only ones going toward the buildings were Police, Fire Trucks, Ambulances.
While the events unfolded, the “Ground Hog Day” Invitational was the furthest priority from my mind, but at some point I ventured a guess that we just lost a whole lot of money.
Eerily, like Covid, the US sort of just all of a sudden ’shut down’. All domestic air flights came to a halt. The NFL cancelled it’s next few games. People were afraid to meet in large spaces like arena’s and stadiums for sporting events. At that point in time, I didn’t know if we’d even resume our gymnastics season.
What I do know is that we all sort of tuned in to the nightly news. Sometimes I’d watch it all day long.
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Following the immediate hit, the stories of the Heroes of that day came out. The news would show the faces and tell the stories of the brave Men & Women who went running up those towers as they came down. In some cases entire Fire Stations were wiped out, and they’d list the names of those who so bravely ran to the scene.
What was interesting and beautiful is that we as a nation united like I’d never seen in my life. It seemed that people forgot their petty issues and focused on the ‘bigger picture’. We received a terrible blow and sucker punch, be we united in that we weren’t going to take it. We were going to stand back up, proud and tall, and take the fight to the terrorist. We were ALL united in that sentiment. Everyone— Democrats, Republicans, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim… was united in the belief that we weren’t going to allow this sort of thing to stop our Freedoms, change our way of life, and that we’d get and punish those responsible.
Anyway back to the “Ground Hog Day” Invitational. It was probably late November, and the Boosters wanted to have another meeting. I think at this point, we hadn’t received many entries for the meet, and we were going to decide whether to ‘cut our losses’, or push through the best we could.
My gyms not all that big. It’s a really nice training facility, but not that great for spectators nor meetings. We hosted the Booster Meetings in the gym lobby which get pretty crowded. Anyway, we called a meeting. The Team Parents started showing up and sitting down in the lobby chatting with one another waiting on the meeting to begin. The normal chatter at that time was almost always the latest Heroes story from the news the night before.
THE “Birth” of Stars & Stripes:
What happened next is perhaps the decisive moment and the ‘BIRTH’ per say of this Stars & Stripes Gymnastics Meet.
I had just started the meeting when a guy opened the door and walked in the lobby. It was clear he wasn’t one of the boosters in that he looked confused at everyone sitting there. He excused himself for interrupting and asked me if he could quietly sneak by and go out in the gym and watch his daughter in the Beginner Recreational Class.
Now again I have a tight gym facility. For that reason, we don’t allow Parents in the gym during classes. What we do is we have—every 12 weeks, a Parents Viewing Week. For that special Viewing Week, we move equipment around, pull the bleachers out, make a safe pathway clear of mats and such to walk…. We just don’t allow Parents in the gym during classes for a number of safety reasons.
So this random Recreational class parent politely asks if he could go into the gym to watch his daughter in class. I said, “I’m sorry sir, we don’t allow Parents in the gym during classes. It’s for safety reasons. You are welcome to come back in 6 weeks when we host our next “Parents Viewing Week”! He nodded in understanding and said, “Yes I know! Unfortunately, I’m in the Reserves, and my Unit was just called in. We’re deploying for Afghanistan and I won’t be able to make it.”
You could hear a pin drop on my carpet. This guy—I don’t know, father of some Beginner kid in my gym—is leaving to fight in the upcoming ’War on Terror’, and I’m sticking to protocols? This could be the last time he sees his precious daughter / son for maybe a year or more—or worse yet… ever!
OF COURSE, I let him go in! I dumped the Booster Meeting to escort him myself!
When I returned to the meeting, the Boosters had almost already made the decision. We all agreed that there are things far more important than “Ground Hog Day”. We decided right then and there to change the name of the meet to the Stars & Stripes. We were NOW going to dedicate this meet to the Brave Heroes of 9/11 and the like.
I look back on that tearfully again as I write this foreword. Call it ‘fate’ or call it ‘destiny’, this random person (an unnamed hero of the War on Terror) changed my life in so many ways, and to a certain extent—changed your life in that you’re here—reading this foreword.
If not for that Hero, we may have cancelled the Ground Hog meet all together. We certainly wouldn’t be having a Ground Hog Day meet in mid January. We might have gone forth and hosted the ‘Ground Hog Day’ meet, but I doubt now that it would have reached this sort of stature.
However his patriotism and duty was enough to inspire us to reconsider our path at that time. Through this event I’ve now met so many persons that serve in the Police, Fire, Rescue, and Military, and have gained a valuable appreciation for these Heroes.
Lastly, I don’t know what happened to this person. I don’t know what / if any Heroic deeds he accomplished on his Mission and his time in Afghanistan. I don’t know if he was involved in direct fire with the enemy or was perhaps was responsible for helping others by being the Cook, or helping with the supply lines.... I’m not quite sure if he was wounded or perhaps he was one of the many casualties. What I do know is that he stepped up to his duty, traveled to a hostile foreign land, missed precious time with his family and daughter in an effort to keep us safe. He is one of the many—’Un-named Heroes’ that we wish to pay homage to this weekend. For if not for people like this, perhaps we might not be able for freely attend an event like this to enjoy the talent and passions of these wonderful gymnasts about to compete.
With that in mind, please keep them in your thoughts & prayers! Say ‘Thank You for your Service’ if you get a chance to all the unnamed Heroes of the Fire, Police, Rescue & Military! God Bless them All!
Good Luck & Welcome to ALL of the fine athletes that are about to compete this weekend!
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