In 2019, four members of NIU Gymnastics (Coach Levin, Zach Cipra, Adrian Siaw, and Gareth Elkins) drove to Annapolis, Maryland for the USAG Collegiate Nationals, where Zach Cipra became the first Northern Illinois gymnast to compete on the same floor as NCAA gymnasts since the 1980s. It was in Annapolis, Maryland, 124 miles from where founding fathers signed our Declaration of Independence, that the four of us became the founding fathers of a new era for NIU Men’s Gymnastics. How was that chapter reopened?
Just a few years after finishing sixth nationally in 1982 and eighth in 1983 and after sending various individuals to compete in the NCAA National Championships and even producing a National Champion in 1984… Northern Illinois University dropped their men’s gymnastics program. With a storied history and a decade full of both team and individual success the chapter book was closed and put on the shelf for another time.
While it’s hard to imagine such a successful team being cut, it’s an atrocity that Men’s Gymnastics teams across The United States know all too well. And while it is easy to dwell on the seemingly unfair or unfortunate situation and close the chapter book, the current athletes at NIU have decided that the book is far from over, and there are more stories to be written and to be told. Donate now to help keep it going!
Although NIU recreational gymnastics has been part of the picture since the program dropped, the story of the rebirth of NIU’s Varsity GymACT Men’s Gymnastics program started a little over a year ago when Coach Josh Levin first learned about GymACT when he was approached by Washington coach Giancarlo Mora at the 2018 JO Nationals asking him if any of his JO athletes would be interested in going to Washington. Levin was impressed by the tenacity and passion in which Mora recruited, and from then on he knew that gymnastics at the collegiate level was changing to include GymACT – a new conference to compete on the gym floor with NCAA teams.
Fast Forward to when UIC “got wind” that their athletic director was dropping their NCAA program. Levin, along with many proactive gymnastics’ enthusiasts were active online discussing ideas for Chicago gymnastics, when he met Southern California United coach Heinz Shulmeister. Coach Shulmeister was the first to call Coach Levin to tell his story of how he started a collegiate program, buying 17 uniforms without any committed gymnasts, armed only with the idea that he was going to change history. He became the first person to start a collegiate co-op program not based on one particular school but rather involving student athletes in Southern California from multiple schools. Heinz and Levin wondered if Chicago could do something similar.
A few weeks later, Levin got a call from Scott Barclay (Head coach at Arizona State); Barclay told Levin, “NIU was an amazing program back in the day. If you want to help out in the Chicago area why don’t you start with NIU”.
Miraculously, an NIU club gymnast, Zach Cipra, showed up at Aerial Gymnastics where Levin coaches only within one week of Barclay’s call. When Zach met Coach Levin, it was a gymnastics relationship meant to happen – possibly from the heavens. It was a John Lennon-Paul McCartney type connection or possibly a Han Solo and Chewbacca connection. The stars aligned and the NIU chapter book flew open again. Together, Levin and Zach recruited 9 all-around gymnasts in the Chicago area to join the NIU program. They worked together to create structure and an overall program that will respectively compete against other NCAA teams for the first time in decades in the approaching 2020 season. Donate now to help them do it!