WILMINGTON—- Back in the first week of January of 2002, then Wilmington High School Athletic Director Jim Gillis made a tough decision when he dropped the Varsity Girls Gymnastics program, citing the decision was based mostly on lack of numbers and lack of funds, while other factors included lack of competing in the league (30 straight losses at one time) and numbers in competitive cheerleading both at the youth and high school levels had jumped dramatically.
Over the last few years, there's been interest by parents here in Wilmington to have the gymnastics program added back to WHS Athletics.
This interest has been spearheaded by a group of parents, as well as Chelsie Burland, who is a former star gymnast at Nashua High School in New Hampshire and former All-American Collegiate Gymnast at Ithaca College. She has a history of starting up programs and having tremendous success moving forward.
In an email that Burland sent to both Wilmington Superintendent of Schools Glenn Brand and WHS Athletic Director Tim Alberts, Burland states: "I currently have at minimum (of) ten gymnasts in the Wilmington district looking to experience the culture of high school gymnastics in Wilmington. I know the (school administration has) been approached before, and unfortunately the numbers don't merit bringing this sport to your high school.
“Amongst the ten gymnasts who are interested, there are three who just returned from Nationals down in Florida, two of them placed in the top five respectively on more than one event. This is outstanding given how few gymnasts from Massachusetts qualified for Nationals in general, nevermind placing.
"In addition, you have Level 8 athletes who became state champions and made the top seven state team for the regional championships, all falling into one district, Wilmington. (They didn't accomplish this as a) co-op (with another town), simply Wilmington. These gymnasts have a burning desire to bring their talents to the MIAA and represent (WHS) with winning performances.
"The other part to this, is high school gymnastics prepares these gymnasts for collegiate gymnastics, in which all of them dream of doing. Without Wilmington adding this sport, it cuts their chances of obtaining these dreams in half. It's also important to note that these gymnasts are currently being recruited by Division 1 colleges, and I as their (club) coach, am one hundred percent committed in doing whatever I may need to do to make this happen.
"High School gymnastics is extremely different than club gymnastics. Club is an individualized sport, whereas high school is about the team, just like college. There is no other way or opportunity for these girls to get this exposure or experience, to help their chances at a scholarship, than participating in the MIAA gymnastics competition."
Burland is currently the head coach at Pinkerton Academy in New Hampshire, while she also works full-time as a competitive coach at Gym Street, USA here in Wilmington. She stated in her emails that if Wilmington added gymnastics to the 2019-20 calendar year, she was interested in starting it from scratch, coaching, and would volunteer her time and not take a coach’s salary for the first year. She also claimed that she could work with Gym Street on defraying costs to use their gym for practices and meets.
She said she would also entertain the thoughts of Wilmington joining another program to form a Co-Op Team, much like Wilmington did this past winter with North Reading in boys and girls swimming.
Brand said that the co-op could possibly be an option down the road, just not right now.
"The only viable option at this point in time to add any additional sports that we do not currently have in place is through a co-operative partnership with another district similar to what was done with the swim program," he said. "Our AD, Mr. Alberts, has taken the initiative to explore the potential interest of partnering with other schools in the Middlesex League.
“At the present time, there are no teams currently in the league that are in need of additional gymnasts — the exception is Belmont, Lexington and Watertown who currently do not offer gymnastics programs. If there were to be a possible partnership opportunity such would need to be brought before the School Committee to ultimately consider and approve.
"With the district budget already finalized for next year and no apparent prospect of a cooperative team partnership, there is not the possibility to add a team for the 2019-20 school year.
"It is understood that there will be from time-to-time interest in adding sports to the current program. To this end, I recently discussed with the School Committee my intention of bringing forth a policy that can help guide the adoption of sports to our overall athletic portfolio.
“It is my intention to work closely with Mr. Alberts in developing a policy proposal over the upcoming months and present this to the Committee in the fall at some point. I am hopeful that this can serve as a tool for the Committee and administration to evaluate potential sports programs and the associated fiscal responsibility that would come with them."
While Burland has sparked a lot of interest, so has a group of parents, led by Christine Nally.
“This past year, Wilmington students were invited to join the North Reading swim team,” said Nally, “North Reading is NOT part of the Middlesex League. With this invite, comes the financial burden for Wilmington parents to pay $400 per child to participate, which is the North Reading athletic fee. Why are Wilmington families able to pay $400 per child to North Reading, but Wilmington families are not allowed to fundraise/self-fund a newly proposed gymnastics program?”
Nally went on to say that she believes that there is enough student-body interest, there is gym space and the necessary equipment, there is a more than qualified coach on board to start up the program and she said that, “Wilmington is running out of excuses (to) why this is not be explained more in detail. Our student (athletes) deserve this opportunity.”
Madison Dickson, a senior at WHS said, "I feel that I missed out on the experience to represent my school," while her mother Christine added, "My daughter is a senior this year and because Wilmington offers so many other sports for girls, she could not compete in gymnastics for another town — even though our (the high school) doesn't offer it.”
It's believed that WHS started gymnastics either in the 1980 or 1981 school year. In 1988, the program had its best year record wise, finishing 6-3 including then sophomore Tracey Greer finishing as the MVC Champion in the balance beam, while finishing fourth in the all-around competition, before finishing ninth at the state individual meet on the beam.
She was the first gymnast from Wilmington to win an event at MVC Meet.
The team had a number of coaches in the 1980s and early 1990s, until Michelle Antonelli Gillis held the position for nine and throughout that time the program never had a winning record.
Burland's coaching resume is off the charts. Her dual meet record at Pinkerton Academy is 202-0-1, which includes winning seven state championship titles in the past nine years. She was recently named the Lawrence Eagle Tribune Newspaper's Coach of the Year for the fifth time.
In addition, she has also coached at the New Hampshire Academy in New Hampton, NH, leading five different age groups to state titles. Prior to her coaching there, the program had never won a state title. In her first season, she had 26 individual state champions, three regional champions and two National Qualifiers.
The following year, she took over Level 4 and took home six state championship titles with 36 individual champs, 6 regional champions and two National Qualifiers.
Before coaching, the Nashua High graduate was an All-ECAC Gymnast at Ithaca College and she helped lead the team to league titles in 2005 and 2006, as well as a second place finish at the nationals.
"I hope together, we can work collectively, and make this dream happen for these young ladies," said Burland in the email to administrators. "If I did not believe that this group of girls could contend with the top competition in (Massachusetts), you would not be hearing from me.
"I believe with my passion, enthusiasm, and competitiveness, we have the perfect recipe to make a huge impact against competition this coming season. If money is a concern, this could be done in a very cheap cost with a huge payout."