A Women’s Sport Pioneer and an Olympian from Florida
By Bruce A. Davis
When the 1960 Amateur Athletic Union Championships and Olympic Trials were over at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York; there was a new women’s NAAU all-around champion. Later, in September, when the United States went to the 1960 Rome Olympics, the NAAU women’s all-around champion lead the US women’s gymnastics team with the highest all-around finish (28 th.); but, the media hardly noticed. Gail Sontgerath was a young unknown Floridian, competing in a little known sport. There was no live television coverage of the Olympic Games in 1960. Women athletes did not have equality with men in sports. Title 9 legislation was still years away.
Gail’s family moved to West Palm Beach from Point Pleasant, NJ. when she was ten. The family had previously spent winters only in Florida. She began working out at the Elk’s Youth Center, a small rented building and an extension of the West Palm Beach Recreation Center. Budd Watson, a retired trapeze “catcher” from the Ringling Brothers circus was doing most of the coaching and it was on circus equipment like trampoline, flying rings, and acrobatics.
Ben York, a local sports and gymnastics program supporter arranged to have the WPB Recreation Department make some gymnastic equipment. They made the beam, bars and horse. The gymnastics program was growing and it was moved to Curry Park. All the workouts were held outdoors. One of Gail’s high school physical education teachers, Lucy McDaniels helped polish her competition routines. Her ballet background from Wilma Fizell, a local ballet studio teacher, gave her a classical look in floor exercise and beam much like the Russian team which won all the gold, silver and bronze medals in the Rome Olympiad.
Gail had competed outside Florida for the first time in the 1959 NAAU and was the alternate to the Pan American Games team. It was also the first time Gail had actually worked on officially manufactured gymnastics equipment. She performed her tumbling and floor exercise routine on a wood gymnasium floor rather than outside on a grass field like she did in Florida. She considered it a luxury to compete on such great equipment that was provided by a manufacturer.
In 1961 after the Olympic year of 1960, Gail went to Europe on a three week competition tour. It was a wonderful experience to see and compete in all those places. In 1962, she made the World Championship team and competed in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Her final try for an international team was the 1964 Olympic trials for which she admits that she was ill-prepared. She did not have a personal coach to help her. She was enrolled in college at Florida State University and that was on her mind.
Gail earned her Bachelors degree in 1966 and her Masters degree in 1967 and stayed for two additional years to teach physical education courses at FSU. Dr Hartley Price, the FSU coach, helped Gail financially with a stipend for competing and performing in Gymkana shows.
Gail returned to West Pam Beach to fulfill her dream and to open the Gail Sontgerath Training Center (GSTC) where she would train young gymnasts. She relocated the GSTC in Jupiter for two years. In all she operated GSTC from 1969-1976 and then closed the gymnastics school to find time needed to raise her two children April and Chuck. She had married Bill, a veterinarian, a few years earlier. Gail was deeply involved in developing female gymnasts in the early years of the United States Gymnastics Federation program which took over from the AAU as the national ruling gymnastics organization in 1970.
One of Bill’s clients had recommended Cedar Key as a good place for the family to retire after their work years. Gail and Bill purchased close to 200 acres of land from Randolph Hodges, a well known politician. In 1998 they left Jupiter for Cedar Key. Their property borders on the railroad crossing where locals loaded cedar trees for the lumber mills. It is also the location of the Rosewood massacres. A once destroyed historical marker marking the location has been replaced by a more substantial one. The State of Florida started reparation payments to victims families of the Rosewood massacres a few years ago. A movie, Rosewood, tells the story. It is a movie all Floridians should see. Gail tells me the area is still very rural. She travels 20 miles to get to the nearest grocery store.
Gail always impressed me with her calm demeanor. She never complained about the poor judging and politics in gymnastics in her role as a competitor and as a coach. I feel closely connected to her . Gail and my sister, Muriel Grossfeld, were teammates on several of the same international gymnastics teams. Gail and my sister were gymnastic pioneers coming into the sport of gymnastics with classical ballet training backgrounds. Later on, I was on the coaching floor at meets with Gail during the early seventies as we pioneered USGF gymnastics competition in Florida. Gail’s gymnasts were always well-prepared and a pleasure to be around due to Gail‘s positive influence. Gail’s and my college preparation as physical educators were similar and attained during the same era. Gail is one of my all time favorite women athletes and a role model for all young women. She is a pioneer in women’s sports development and Florida‘s 1960 gymnastics Olympian .
Bruce A. Davis, Professor Emeritus Miami Dade College, Director of Flip Flops & Fitness gymnastics school of Apollo Beach.