PERHAM, Minn. (AP) – In many Minnesota small towns, Friday nights bring fans together for high school basketball or hockey games. Those are the winter sports that get the most attention.
But in the small town of Perham, it’s the girls’ gymnastics team that’s filling the trophy case. The Perham gymnasts are starting a season they hope will end with an eighth consecutive state championship.
In the high school’s dimly lit gym, seven state title banners hang from the rafters.
A half dozen girls are practicing balance beam moves at the same time and Coach Charlie Fleck seems to see them all.
He pushes, and praises.
“Jordan, you gotta keep your back straight. Get posture position! Get that takeoff position.” Fleck exhorts. “Atta girl,” Fleck adds when the gymnast is successful.
Fleck has been doing this for 38 years. The 60-year-old retired teacher taught and coached gymnastics in Fargo for 25 years.
He coached 18 conference championship teams and won four National High School Gymnastics Invitational titles. When he retired he moved to Minnesota lakes country. In 1998 he opened a gymnastics club in Perham.
Perham approved girl’s gymnastics as a high school sport in 2002. Two years later the team won its first state title, and they’ve won every year since.
Mikaela Eickschen, a senior this year, has been coached by Fleck since she was three.
“He’s not mean, but he’s tough,” Eickschen said. “He loves you like his own daughter. He’ll reward you like his own daughter. He buys us (leotards) for Christmas. They’re $30 a piece, times 14 girls, it gets expensive. He cares about us a lot and he wants us to be good.”
The girls practice three hours every evening and on Saturday. They have a 9 p.m. curfew. Senior Kelsi Vomacka said the coach demands hard work in the gym and in the classroom.
“It’s not a sport for the weak, that’s for sure,” Vomacka said. “We pick off the weak in the beginning and the tough stay through it.
“You have to give up dinner with your family because you get home late from practice. You have to give up a lot of sleep because you’re up late doing homework,” she said. “Going out to see a movie, you have to give that up because you need to be home either studying or sleeping. You can’t be running around. It does take time to realize that, but it pays off in the end.”
The payoff for Vomacka has been an individual state championship in addition to the team state titles. As a senior, she feels the pressure to repeat this year. She said no one wants to be on the team that breaks the streak of seven straight state titles.
Fleck said the Perham gymnastics program is successful because kids get an early start and they work hard. Local businesses pay for equipment and parents support the program.
Gymnastics is still growing in Perham. This year there are 14 girls on the high school team and more are expected to make the team next year.
The coach isn’t much for inspirational speeches, but he uses a lot of simple phrases to focus on the same message, discipline and hard work.
“When the going gets tough the tough get going. That’s one he says all the time,” offers Eickschen.
“And another one: `It’s not luck; it’s hard work,’ ” adds Kelsi Vomacka.
“(When) preparation meets opportunity, luck is what happens,” Fleck said. “We’ve had some good luck.”
That luck is expected to continue this year. The Perham girls are favored to win another state title.
Perham is tied with Mahtomedi for the most consecutive state titles in girls’ gymnastics, according to the Minnesota State High School League office. Fleck hopes to bring home several more state titles to Perham. He’s 60 now and plans to keep coaching for another six years.
“I like kids; kids are part of my life,” he said at the gym. “When I come here, it’s fun because every day the kids come in here with a smile on their face. And the next two years we’re going to gain a lot of numbers. And we have some phenomenal kids coming.”
There’s room to hang at least a few more championship banners from the rafters in that crowded old gym.
By DAN GUNDERSON
Minnesota Public Radio
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