Gymnastics has a long history. Greek and Roman soldiers used such exercises to balance the mind and body, but it was not until the nineteenth century that German Friedrich Jahn popularized the modern version in Europe. In Germany he established "Turnvereins," gymnastic clubs that spread to America with the arrival of European immigrants. In 1896 the revived Olympics featured men's gymnastics and in 1928 added the women's events.
In Oklahoma gymnastics can be traced to the "Sokols" of Czechoslovakian immigrants and German Turnverein clubs. Sokols served as gymnastic and social clubs, with Czechs in Yukon organizing Sokol Karel Havlicek in 1898 and in Prague forming Sokol Praha in 1906. Other towns and cities followed, including Oklahoma City. In 1907 Germans in Oklahoma City initiated plans for their Turnverein. Gymnastics had also spread as the U.S. military adopted components of it in training exercises. In the early twentieth century Oklahoma colleges, high schools, and YMCAs held exhibitions and matches in gymnastics, often coupled with wrestling tournaments.
In 1963 the Big Eight Athletic Conference, in which the University of Oklahoma (OU) Sooners and Oklahoma State University (OSU) Cowboys participated, initiated a gymnastic championship. Although OSU did not field a team, in 1966 OU formed its first conference squad. After OU hired Paul Ziert as the men's coach in 1973, the program excelled, co-winning a national championship in 1977 and winning outright in 1978. These teams were led by Bart Conner, who was an All-Around All-American for three consecutive years. The Sooners won national championships again in 1991, 2002, and 2003. OU gymnasts who have won the Nissen-Emery Award, honoring the nation's top senior male collegiate competitor, include Conner (1981), Jarrod Hanks (1991), Dan Fink (1998), Todd Bishop (1999), and Daniel Furney (2003). The OU women's team debuted in 1981 and won five Big Eight Titles under coach Becky Switzer. Two notable players in the 1980s were Kelly Garrison and Cassie Frey. In 2001 Steve Nunno, who had successfully coached Olympic- and international elite-level champions, took over the OU women's coaching duties. OSU fielded a women's team from 1974 until 1986, when budget problems ended a program that had earned one Big Eight title.
Many athletes with Oklahoma ties have competed in the Olympics, including Conner, Shannon Miller-Phillips, Kelly Garrison-Steves, Janie Speaks, and Kathy Howard. In 1984 Connors achieved a gold medal in the parallel bars and team competition. Miller-Phillips has won seven Olympic medals, including two gold (team and balance beam) in the 1996 games. She had been coached by Nunno's Dynamo Gymnastics, with gyms in Edmond and Oklahoma City. Dynamo earned a world-wide reputation by consistently qualifying girls for national and international competitions.
Romania native Nadia Comaneci, in 1976 the first woman in Olympic history to earn a perfect score of ten, defected to the United States in 1989. In 1996 she married Bart Conner and they have since divided their time between homes in California and in Norman, Oklahoma, where they operate the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy and participate in Ziert and Associates, with former OU coach Paul Ziert. This company manufactures gymnastic paraphernalia, including grips, shoes, and t-shirts, and publishes International Gymnast, one of the world's premier gymnastic magazines. In 1996 the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame announced its relocation from Oceanside, California, to downtown Oklahoma City. In 1997 it held its first induction ceremony, with Conner and Comaneci joining seven other giants of the sport as inaugural members. Another of that group, Comaneci's former coach Bela Karolyi, served one year as OU men's assistant coach in 1981, after he defected from Romania. Although other sports dominate the Oklahoma headlines, the state's gymnastic history should not be overlooked. In 2003 Sports Illustrated described Oklahoma as a "gymnastic hotbed."
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Karel D. Bicha, The Czechs in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980). Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 9 March 1909, 11 March 1923, 2 January 1940, 28 July 1989, 22 September 1996, 7 September 1997, and 13 August 2000, Doris Dellinger, A History of Oklahoma State University Intercollegiate Athletics (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University, 1987). Richard C. Rohrs, The Germans in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980).
© Oklahoma Historical Society