Supporters of the Lawrence school district’s gymnastics team showed up at the Sports Pavilion on Sunday to honor their high school seniors and take stock of the program they fought to save.
Coach Kat Farrow said the process of keeping the program afloat exhausted her and set the team months behind schedule in terms of planning and preparation. Still, fighting for her athletes and upgrades for the sport paid off.
“We got basically everything we wanted. And it was worth fighting for,” Farrow said, pointing out new leotards, warmups, bags and equipment. “It’s what I’ve been fighting for for seven years, to get the notoriety and just get them what they deserve. Just like all the other sports. So that’s what’s been exciting.”
In December 2021 the Lawrence school district proposed nixing the high schools’ combined program known as the FireLions. Community members and students rallied to save it, but the program’s fate remained in limbo while the district mulled budget cuts. In late April, girls’ gymnastics was saved after a four-year analysis of athletics participation data led to a recommendation that the program remain in place.
Honored on Sunday were seven FireLions seniors, including Ava Graber-Weickert (Free State High School) and Sophia Zogry (Lawrence High School).
A gymnast “on and off” since she was 10, Graber-Weickert plans to study nursing at Wichita State University next fall. She got teary while Farrow talked about her contributions to the team.
“I’ve gotten so close to many of the people and so it’s like, now I’m leaving. It went by too fast for me,” Graber-Weickert said. “Honestly, it’s not really about competition. I mean, it is, but it’s also about having fun. And just being there to support others and having a good time.”
Farrow and others credited the increased attention on the FireLions for helping the team grow this season. Last year, 22 athletes were on the team. This year, the roster has grown to 27.
Some of those newcomers have left gymnastics as a club sport and transitioned to the high school program, including LHS senior Peyton Fowler.
“I’ve been doing club gymnastics for so long. I’ve been competing for eight years. And it was kind of time to be done,” Fowler said.
Thanks to the flexibility of high school athletics, Fowler is a two-sport athlete this fall. She also plays golf. The lessons she’s learned from gymnastics carry over to her other interests, including the music education she plans to pursue in college.
“Gymnastics has taught me a lot of emotional things about myself and how to stay positive, stay confident in myself and be confident as an individual,” Fowler said. “I’ve found that you have deeper connections with your teammates, because you use each other to build yourselves up and you build off of each other’s energy so much.”
Another first-year gymnast at LHS, junior Annie Shew, also left club gymnastics behind her.
“It’s a very stressful environment,” Shew said. “And I went to the protests. And when I saw how close their team was and how hard everyone was fighting for them, I was like, ‘Maybe this is something that I want to be involved in.’”
Maya Huang wiped tears from her cheeks during Farrow’s tribute to her.
“It’s my first year doing high school gymnastics, but I’ve been doing gymnastics since I could walk,” Huang, an FSHS senior, said after she left the mat.
She hopes to study sports medicine at Tulane University.
The team also has a new assistant coach. Jerynn Lindbloom has joined Farrow and fellow assistant coach Daneka Vann. Lindbloom, formerly of Jayhawk Gymnastics, has traditionally worked with younger gymnasts.
“So it was really exciting to finally get to be a part of hands-on, on the program after they got saved,” Lindbloom said, calling the new responsibilities exciting and exhilarating. “It’s been a whole challenge working with a different age group than I’m typically used to.”
Farrow said that although the program still needed a foam core to replace the wrestling mats it uses and will need a new competition beam at some point, she felt grateful for the support the team had received during the last year.
This season, she explained, the FireLions have been able to host three Lawrence-based athletic events — something the team hadn’t done for two years.
Several gymnastics alumni who rallied for the team also attended the In-town Showdown on Sunday. FSHS graduate Avery Qualseth was there in support of her younger sister, Mallory Qualseth, among others.
“I think high school gymnastics is super unique and it’s very inclusive,” Avery said. “It’s a very different environment that you can’t really get in rec, intramural classes or in club. It’s very accessible to a lot of people and different skill levels. So it’s really important for me to keep gymnastics around in this way.”
Parent Sally Zogry said she was grateful her daughter, Sophia, had been able to continue competing with her schoolmates during her senior year.
As the FireLions and their coaches and family members moved mats and other equipment back to their original spaces at the meet’s conclusion, Zogry said she believed the FireLions ranks would continue growing.
“We are an important program in this state, in the Sunflower League,” Zogry said. “We’re constantly pushing ourselves to be better, to do different skills.”
The FireLions competed in the Shawnee Mission North Invitational, hosted at Shawnee Mission Northwest on Sept. 17. Here are some photos from that event, courtesy of Mac Moore, KSHSAA Covered.