Vaulting through a century

Sam Campanaro

Back when Sid Wolfenson was a gymnast at Minnesota, the mats he tumbled on were only three and a half feet wide, and he would be disqualified if he left those parameters.

Tumbling became the floor exercise of today, which takes place on a 40-by-40 spring board floor.

Wolfenson earned praise from his teammates when he learned a new trick. That’s when a full twist was a big deal.

“The difficulty today compared to my era is at least 10 times greater,” Wolfenson said. “There was nothing like the exercises you see today.”

A gymnast from 1938 to 1940, Wolfenson is one of the oldest alumni

coming to Minnesota this weekend to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the program.

The equipment, exercises, faces and names have changed over the years, but the one thing these men share is their pride in the program at Minnesota.

As for those 100 years of history, it’s the individual stories and accomplishments of the coaches and athletes that make the program worth honoring this weekend.

“You definitely realize that you are representing more than just you when you wear that maroon and gold uniform,” said John Roethlisberger, the most successful gymnast in program history.

Roethlisberger was a three-time NCAA all-around champion, a three-time Olympian and a five-time World Championship team member.

There are, no doubt, noteworthy team accomplishments, such as three runner-up finishes at the NCAA championships in 1941, 1949 and 1990.

From the beginning, the goals each year have remained the same: win the conference championships and national title. With 20 Big Ten championships, the NCAA title is the only thing missing from the Gophers’ repertoire.

“I guess that’s going to be part of the second 100 years,” coach Fred Roethlisberger said.

Now into his 32nd year of coaching at Minnesota, Fred Roethlisberger has devoted his life to coaching some of the top gymnasts in the world.

“For me, it’s what I know and what I’ve had fun doing,” he said.

Roethlisberger has coached 11 Big Ten championship teams and 50 individual Big Ten champions. He is also a member of the U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame and is a four-time Big Ten Coach of the Year.

Even before the program’s legacy reached its peak under Roethlisberger, Minnesota was a place to come for gymnastics.

“I grew up watching these athletes,” said Brian Meeker, a team member from 1979 to 1982. “I trained at the ‘U’ as a junior gymnast and grew up in the Twin Cities.”

Meeker was a Big Ten all-around champion in 1981 and 1982. Minnesota won Big Ten titles in three of the four years Meeker competed.

For a lot of the men, the years they spent at Minnesota are only a small part of their gymnastics career. Many of them have competed internationally, coached or judged after college.

The experience gained from participating in gymnastics has added to other aspects of these men’s lives.

Curtis O. Lynum, an athlete and assistant coach from 1937 to 1941, became an FBI agent during the J. Edgar Hoover era. Still, he kept his ties to the program strong.

“It was a nostalgic moment for me to be back in the gymnastics world again and vicariously participate in the events,” Lynum wrote while attending the NCAA championship in 1949 in his book “The FBI and I.”

Alumni form most of Minnesota’s booster club, and they are helping to coordinate the events surrounding the 100-year celebration.

Stories from each decade, such as Wolfenson’s and Lynum’s, will be shared Friday at a banquet held at the Radisson Hotel Metrodome. Hundreds of other stories will surely be swapped about old coaches, success and what has happened to each of these men since their days on the mats at Minnesota.

On Saturday, under the watchful eye of its proud alumni, the Gophers will open their home season against Illinois.

“It’s amazing to be able to be a part of this 100th year,” said Clay Strother, NCAA pommel horse and floor exercise champion, “and see all of the success that has happened.”

Sam Campanaro welcomes comments at [email protected]