FLORIDA STATE OLYMPIANS,
FIRST FSU MEN , AND THE FIRST FSU WOMEN NATIONAL CHAMPIONS
GATHER ANNUALLY FOR REUNIONS
by Jack Miles
Except for graying hair and pattern baldness the majority of FSU men and women gymnasts look healthy and fit as they gather annually for a week-end reunion hosted these past three years by Gymnast Barbara Withers at Alligator Point, Florida. Prior to these reunions Dr. Juanito Lopez had hosted this group in his spacious home in Venice Florida after saileding across the Atlantic in his sailboat from his former home and medical practice in Switzerland.
Sharing over a half century of life experiences and stories of children and grandchildren, while comparing sports related injuries this FSU gymnastic dynasty from the mid fifties has boasting rights to nine Olympians and one National Team member from Czechoslovakia. USA Olympians: Bill Roetzheim (Two times), Don Holder, Gail Sontgerath, Jack Miles, Jay Ashmore, Jon Culbertson and Cuban Olympians: Captain Rafael Lecuona (Three times) and his brother Fernando (Two times), plus Swedish Olympian Lennart Malmlin, and Miroslav Ceska from the Czechoslovakian National team. The reunion group holds the honor of being members of the first men’s team from FSU to win a NCAAChampionship in any sport. Also attending was four who won the Women’s National AAU Team DrillChampionship title held in Chicago in 1953. The FSU men’s gym team won The NCAA Gymnastics Championships back to back in 1951 and 1952 and thirty-seven Team Championships from 1950 to 1958. FSU wasthe first collegiate athletic team to win a National Championship in any sport from any college or University in the State of Florida.
Interestingly, even though FSU captured the title twice, the NCAA Championship was not the coveted crown for the FSU gymnasts at that time. The then AAU National Team Championships was the title to win and win it they did, three times,1951, 1953, and 1955 giving the FSU team the honor of collectively winning five National Team titles in four years. In the AAU Nationals, gymnasts could also secure a place on the Olympic Team to compete in the World, Pan American, or on the National Traveling Team to compete against other nations.
Collectively the individual alumni, twenty-two All-American Team inductees and seven FSUHall of Fame inductees, had won forty individual National and Pan-American OlympicGold Medals and have coached tens of thousands of budding young gymnasts.
The FSU Gym team was so powerful that they traveled to Havana winning over Cuba’s Olympic Team in a good will match. Sweden’s 1953 World Champion Olympic Team traveled twice to FSU, competing in the then “Katie” Montgomery gym, where the FSU team triumphed. Olympians Holder, Miles, and Roetzheim on USA’s National Team dominated over the Swiss Olympic Team in a good-will match in Chicago while the balance of the team won the Southern Intercollegiate Championships and won. Roetzheim also represented the USA in a match with Czechoslovakia and won a gold medal in the Asiatic Games held in Tokyo.
Interestingly, and always present is the first Sammy Seminole NCAA & NAAU Trampoline Champion, Dick Gutting. In 1953 Dick presented to FSU Football Coach Tom Nugent the concept that Dick could don an Indian costume and lead the team onto the field as he executed a long row of backward hand springs in front of the players. Coach Nugent loved the idea and Dick’s payment was a free meal with the team. After Dick graduated NCAA Floor Exercise Champion Chick Cicio, who was also attends the reunions, became the second Sammy Seminole.
The group at the reunion laughed the most as they recalled how they saved budgeted gymnastics money traveling thousands of miles to the competitions in an old school bus with a driver of dubious sobriety. The gymnasts obtained many FSU stored cot size mattresses which they folded between the metal backed bus seats. Then they would slip into the folded mattress, sort of like a hot dog in a bun, and settle in for the long ride - each to his own bun.
Also in the group is Barbara Sheehan-Withers and Olympian Don Holder’s wife, Connie. Connie trained a contingent of FSU girls for many months. When they felt ready, the girls using their own money entered and traveled to the National AAU Team Drill Championships held in Chicago in 1953 as the FSU Gymkana – a club team named after the annual gymnastics show held on campus. Joyously, the girls won a huge trophy for their and FSU’s first Women’sNational Championship win. The Men and Woman Teams both returned with National titles. After their return to Tallahassee and resultant accolades individually each of the girls received a stern phone call from Dr. Katie Montgomery, FSU Director of the Woman’s Physical Education Department. Dr. Katie warned them that girls should not compete because it is injurious to the female psyche – “Playday” for girls was the name of the game in those times. The team was resultantly disbanded. In spite of the calls the gymnasts loved Dr. Katie because she otherwise treated the gymnasts great and admired the sport.
FSU gymnasts were success driven as athletes which help explain their post grad successes: i.e. Four Doctors in the field of Medicine and Medical Science: Dr. Charlie Christians, Dr. Juanito Lopez M.D., Al Juris, MD and Miroslav Ceska, Ph D. Eight with Assorted Doctorates: Dr. Ed Fernald FSU Vice-President, Dr. Jim Tanaka, Dr. Howard Stephens, Dr. Joe Regna, Dr. Jon Culbertson, Dr. Larry Bestmann, Dr. Don Rapp, and Dr. Rafael Lecuona. Two Doctors of Psychology; Dr. Jim Fadigan Ph.D., and Dr. Wayne Thompson PhD, Four Military Colonels retired: Col. & Dr. Jim Tanaka, Col. Jack D. Sharp, Col. Benny Wallace, Col. Laird Anderson and Captain Don Holder. Many are University retired Professors including Bill Roetzheim and the retired Head of Health & Physical Education at Georgia Tech., Bill Beavers. Director of Tallahassee Parks & Recreation (Leisure Services) Randy Trousdell and the retired Superintendent of Leisure Services, Ft. Lauderdale, Jack Miles. The State of Florida’s official Governor’s portraiture artist, Ed Jonas. Circuit Court Judge James McCauley, FSU Instructor Gail Sontgerath, Accountant, Barbara Sheehan-Withers plus an International Shakespearian Actor Bob Murray who is still today, somewhere on stage, shouting “Once more to the breaches men.” as he parries and thrusts his way through the “Bard’s” villains.
Other than the aforementioned, Canadian Beverly Cude-Beaton, Gail Sontgerath, and four of the Miami retired teachers in the group are Chick Cicio, Dick Gutting, Don Holder and Jim Jackson, all with their Masters in Education. FSU’s Colonel & Dr. Jim Tanaka, the retired coach of the United States Air Force Academy and FSU’s Jamile Ashmore the former Assistant coach at the United State Military Academy, where comparing notes with International Olympic Gymnastic Judges FSU’s Bill Roetzheim and Dr. Jon Culbertson. Jamile Ashmore is also a Board Member of the governing body of the sport –The Federation of International Gymnastics. Their successes should not be a surprise in that this FSU group in 1953 reportedly had the highest grade point average of any organization on campus – not counting Phi Beta Kappa.
Deceased, Dr. Hartley Price, of FSU Hall of Fame, was the team “coach” and even though he hardly ever actively coached “hands on” at FSU, he was a superb recruiter, mentor, top administrator, and public relations expert, bar none. Brought to FSU by Dr. Howard Danford, Athletic Director, Dr. Price hailed from the University of Illinois where his teams had won six National Team titles. Dr. Price also started the Tallahassee Tumbling Tots program where many of the FSU gymnasts made some extra spending money. 1976 Olympian Carrie Englert-Zimmerman, who toured world-wide on the USA Junior Team, and 1980 Olympian Ron Galimore, presently the V.P. of Events, Olympic Relations and the Men’s program for the USGF, the governing body of gymnastics in the United State, both got their start at the TTT.
Ron, later under the coaching of Jack Miles became the first African American to make a USA Olympic Gymnastic Team. Carrie and Ron both were the first gymnasts to score perfect tens in the United States – Carrie ’75 Elite Nationals Floor Exercise, Ron ‘81 NCAA Vaulting. Carrie Englert-Zimmerman, now heads the “Largest Public Relations Firm in Florida one and of the top five P.R. firms in the nation – Zimmerman Agency.
Sadly, in spite of all its monumental success and conservatively operating on three divided up athletic scholarships, the Gymnastics Team was dropped from the FSU arsenal of athletics in 1961. Quote from the FSU Hall of Fame Pages, (Vaughn) " Mancha returned to FSU as Director of Athletics, a post he held for 12 years. In his years as Athletic Director, Florida State moved ahead in all sports" - and some OUT - Gymnastics and a few others were totally eliminated as varsity sports under his leadership (52-64). The gymnasts still lose a grey hair or two trying to figure that one out as they talked at the reunions. Being a coeducational program Title IX was not the culprit. Four years later, USA Olympian Gail Sontgerath-Whitney was instrumental along with Dr. Price in initiating a women’s gymnastics team which was disbanded after two years in 1972 due to the lack of funding.
The reunions gathers together great friends from over a half century ago. What has transpired in the past fifty or so years at Florida State University and the world to which gymnastics has grown is beyond the imagination of this group of Alumni. Nonetheless, looking back at Florida State University as it was in the fifties and sixties, they all agree that it was no less sweet.