Olympian Don Holder
Fate And Friendship Have Served Him Well!
Bruce A. Davis, Professor Emeritus, Miami Dade College
One of the primary traits among high caliber successful athletes, especially Olympians, and particularly in the fifties and into the ‘60’s is humility. Gymnastic Olympian Don Holder personifies this trait. So when I asked him how was it that he became an Olympian, successful high school coach, and teacher, his answer was simple. It was fate and friendship.
When I arrived at Miami Dade Community College in 1966 at age 21 with a new Master’s Degree in physical education from Ohio University, I was looking forward to coaching gymnastics and teaching physical education. I soon found out that I would be able to recruit high school student athletes who participated in the Greater Miami Athletic Conference (GMAC). To my delight I found a sixteen-team boy’s gymnastics league that was in part being coached by several former gymnasts who were members of the Florida State University gymnastics team, a team that had won five national championships in the early fifties.
Among the coaches who developed the league was 1952 Olympian Don Holder who had built new gymnastics programs at Miami Jackson Senior High School, (1958-62) and at Coral Park Senior High School, (1963-79). I first met Don and his wife, Connie, when I was a college student at Southern Connecticut State University, and I attended the Sarasota, Florida National Gymnastic Clinic during the Christmas week of 1962. Olympian Abie Grossfeld, my college coach and a friend of the Don and Connie, drove several of us about 200 miles down to Miami on US 41 (The Tamiami Trail). After a five-hour drive through a jungle like atmosphere we finally arrived at the Holder’s home in the developing South Miami area.
Little did I know that day in 1962 at the Holder’s home, that less than five years later, I would be the head gymnastics coach at MDCC and two of Don’s best all-around gymnasts at Jackson and Coral Park would be star athletes on two of my MDCC teams. Both Cuban and completely different in their performance style, Eduardo Navarro of Miami Jackson and Roland Lopez (See Photo) of Coral Park are notably two of the best ever at Miami Dade. Ed, a very tall gymnast at 6 ft. 1 in., went on to finish his competition career at Indiana State University as a top NCAA Division II all-around performer and then returned to Dade County for a celebrated teaching career in the field of mathematics. At 5 ft. 4 in. and almost a foot shorter than Ed, Roland is still teaching and coaching various sports at Coral Park after taking over for Holder in 1979. Roland won the National Junior College (NJCAA) All-around Championship in 1969 and went on to the University of New Orleans (LSUNO). Ed was a master of the swinging rings, pommel horse, rings, parallel bars, and horizontal bar events while Roland was a dynamic tumbler and vaulter. It also didn’t hurt that Roland was State Wrestling Champion in the 98lb. Class.
As a young high school student in New Jersey, Don admits he needed direction, so fate created a friend. Sitting next to him in one of his classes was a young Pat Signorelli with nicely chiseled arms. Don wanted to know how Pat’s arms got that way. Pat told Don about the gymnastics team at Dickinson High School, so Don began to workout and developed into a pretty fair high school gymnast, but he always trailed the gymnastics exploits of Signorelli, his newfound young mentor. After his high school years during which he had met Connie, his loving wife of over fifty-five years, most of Don and Connie’s free time was taken up roller-skating as adagio partners.
Fate stepped in a second time. During a chance meeting with Signorelli, Pat told Don about the Swiss Turners where several Olympians and other top gymnasts were working out, and he encouraged him to attend and get coaching help to improve his gymnastics. It was sage advice, and Don and Connie began to train with Pat at the Swiss Turners. During this time at the Swiss Turners, Signorelli made a monumental decision affecting his own life and joined the US Air Force for a four year service stint.
Continuing to workout in gymnastics, Connie and Don planned their marriage. They decided to have the wedding at Swiss Turners Hall where fate was waiting again. The day of their marriage, August 19th 1950, Signorelli returned from active service in the Air Force. Pat suggested that Don and Connie consider coming to Florida State University with him and compete for Dr. Hartley Price. Signorell knew the Regna twins, two other Swiss Turners gymnasts, had done this successfully and maybe Pat, Don and Connie should try it. They decided to go to Tallahassee.
Don stayed at FSU from 1951-57 earning a Bachelors Degree in physical education and a Master’s in Education. He made the U.S. Olympic team competing in Helsinki in 1952, helped FSU win a NAAU title and made the 1955 Pan American Games team competing in Mexico City. Connie became a member of the Gymkana Club team working all-around and training the other women gymnasts in an organized women’s team drill. The FSU women’s team won the team drill at the NAAU held at Navy Pier. Returning to Tallahassee, Connie and the drill team members were admonished by the school administration for participating in competition. You see, women at that time were not supposed to be involved in stressful competition.
Holder had a reputation as a hard worker who practiced at every opportunity. When he competed, competition rules were still developing. Don sometimes thought of himself as an eleven-event man. He often competed in rope climb, trampoline, tumbling, swinging rings and Indian clubs besides the traditional six all-around events. He even has a national title in Indian clubs. At Swiss Turners, the gymnasts often performed outside and were required to do some track and field events beside the gymnastics ones.
Don served a six-month stint in the US Army in 1957 and then became a nine-year reservist rising to the rank of Captain. He took the job at Miami Jackson and began developing good gymnasts, winning a State Championship. He won three more State Championships at Coral Park. Serious back surgery relegated him to be the assistant coach in 1979 with Roland Lopez assuming the head coach status. His friend and mentor, Pat Signorelli took a coaching job in Coral Gables and later at Miami Killian High School.
The consummate family man, Don’s priority has always been Connie and his three boys, Tim, Terry and Patrick. Tim and Terry both competed in gymnastics at Coral Park and are now in the tropical fish business in the South Florida area. After retirement from the Miami Dade School System, Don has continued to help his son’s in their business. They recently suffered significant losses due to hurricane Wilma.
Don has always been close to his FSU and New Jersey gymnastics teammates. They still all meet for annual reunions and other events. Fate and friendship have served Don well!