Antone Wright’s grandmother Mary introduced him to gymnastics when he was 6 years old. At first, he said he cried every day.
Around age 10 or 11, he began to develop his strength and became willing to try any skill. He said he was “a wild child,” a “kid in a candy shop.”
Wright, now a senior on the men’s gymnastics club team, joined Temple’s Division I roster as a freshman in 2013 to continue the sport for which he had a passion.
After Temple’s sports cuts went into effect on July 1, 2014, many baseball and softball players left Temple to continue their playing careers, The Temple News previously reported. The story was different for the athletes on the men’s gymnastics and men’s track & field teams. Only one men’s gymnast and two of the seven freshmen on the men’s track & field team transferred to compete elsewhere.
Some athletes who stayed, however, have a found a new way to compete.
No Place to Go
After Temple’s 2013-14 sports cuts, unlike some of the baseball and softball players, Misha Kustin — currently a senior on the men’s gymnastics club and a former Division I gymnast — and coach Fred Turoff didn’t have the option to leave Temple for another gymnastics program.
Turoff had roots in the city that made it difficult to suddenly relocate. His wife, Diane Eigner, couldn’t move because of her nearby cat veterinary practice. Their son, Evan Eigner, was a sophomore at Temple on the gymnastics team before he transferred to Ohio State University.
Turoff competed for Temple from 1966-69 and represented the U.S. in several international competitions, including the 1970 World Gymnastic Championships, before he began his tenure as the Owls’ coach in 1976.
Even if Turoff had been able to relocate, there weren’t many jobs available in men’s gymnastics, he said. There were 234 men’s varsity programs in 1969 and 138 when Turoff began coaching. For the 2017 season, only 15 schools sponsor men’s gymnastics at the Division I level and only one at the Division III level, according to USA Gymnastics. Turoff said Temple’s club team is the only collegiate men’s program in Pennsylvania besides Penn State’s Division I team.
Kustin said he wasn’t good enough to compete at larger schools. And while Navy, Army West Point and the Air Force Academy sponsor Division I gymnastics, he said he wasn’t ready to go to a U.S. service academy for the sake of the sport. He had barely made the Temple team in the first place — it was a “unique fit.”
Men’s gymnastics, still coached by Turoff, operates as a club sport that gets to compete at the same meets as Division I schools. Temple will compete in two championships this season. The team has limited practice time and has one season left to operate on a four-year university subsidy before it has to rely on fundraising efforts.
Jesse Kitzen-Abelson, who was on Temple’s roster from 2007-11 and whose father was on the team from 1969-71, became involved with the club as an assistant coach in September. He coached in South Africa from September 2011 to June 2016 and coached the country’s national team at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. Kitzen-Abelson said he was impressed by the work ethic of the Owls’ freshmen when he started going to practices.
He has started to write up a business plan, inspired by those of Arizona State University, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Washington, programs that are self-sufficient, he said.
Members of the club and their parents are also attending local meets to spark interest in incoming freshmen.
“We need to be a successful club that raises our own budget every year and we’re just going to find a way to thrive on that new model,” Kitzen-Abelson said. “I have to adapt to it, or else it’ll just die off as a club. So I’m just excited to figure out how to make that work and keep all the alumni happy that this program is still here, and we’re going to hopefully be better than we ever were in terms of gymnastics standard.”
Kitzen-Abelson said Turoff will not be at all of the meets next season and only will go to practices two or three days per week instead of five. He is trying to learn as much as he can from Turoff. He wants to be at four to five practices per week next season and said he could become the head coach in the next two seasons.
Turoff turned 70 on March 13 and gave himself a birthday present: a scuba diving trip with humpback whales in the Pacific Ocean. He went diving in December and already has plans for trips to the Philippines in June and Indonesia in January 2018.
“He’s shockingly optimistic still, which is what I like,” Wright said. “He hasn’t really changed his views. He still thinks that we can be great and we have been. We have records on the wall. But it’s just, it’s going to take some time to kind of build back what we had before.”
The club has dealt with several challenges, including when the Owls’ practice facility in Pearson Hall was vandalized in Spring 2016. The last group of gymnasts with Division I experience, which includes Wright, Kustin and club vice president Jakob Welsh, will graduate at season’s end.
“We’ve been a lot of running the team on what we experienced our freshman year, so going forward is, people that have never experienced D-I gymnastics, ‘How do we keep the spirit alive of that kind of attitude to people who’ve never experienced it firsthand,’” Kustin said.
“I was part of this program for four or five years while I was at school, and it did so much for me that I don’t want to see this program disappear,” Kitzen-Abelson said.
Starting from Scratch
After injuring his knee in October 2013 and undergoing surgery, Joseph Sulon was prepared to miss most of his freshman year, hoping he’d be able to come back healthy as a sophomore for Temple’s men’s track & field team.
Sulon leaned on a pair of crutches in the Student Pavilion as then-athletic director Kevin Clark delivered the news that Temple would no longer sponsor a Division I men’s track team after the 2014 season.
“It was especially traumatic because it was like, ‘This is my last season and I’m on crutches right now,’” Sulon said.
“When it first happened, people were upset, people felt ripped off,” he added. “We were like, ‘Why aren’t we allowed to run anymore?’ People have dedicated so long to running. The immediate thought at the time was, ‘We’re all out of here.’”
There were seven freshmen on the 2013-14 men’s track & field team. Triple jumper Thomas Johnson transferred to the University of Maryland at Baltimore County and sprinter Adam Hasan transferred to the University of North Texas. The rest stayed at Temple.
“As time kind of progressed, some people did transfer out, some people still wanted to do the competition,” Sulon said. “Other people decided they wanted to use the time to pursue different interests.”
Joseph Ho had the opportunity to go somewhere else to run. Nearby, Saint Joseph’s University reached out to Ho for a chance to compete for the Hawks after the season, but he wanted to stay at Temple.
Still, Ho didn’t want to give up competing. He wanted to start a club team.
When the Owls’ season ended, he ran the idea by Gabe Pickett, who was a senior captain on the 2013-14 roster. Pickett approved.
“When the team got cut, it was the day before our first indoor race,” Ho said. “Obviously our sights were set on that season. We really didn’t come up with that idea until after [the last meet] which was in June.”
Ho pitched the idea to Sulon, who agreed. The three, along with sprinter Elijah Hargrove and hurdler Blair Alston brought the idea to Campus Recreation when the fall semester began.
“We went in with nothing,” Sulon said. “We had no background, we had no relationship with Campus Rec at the time, and five guys come in, ‘Hey, we want to start a club.’”
It took about four months to receive recognition as a club, but it became official in January 2015.
Ho was the only athlete to compete during the indoor season. The club had six athletes compete during the outdoor season in Spring 2015. Sulon, Ho and Hargrove were the only members from the Division I team to compete. Cody Cameron, K.J. Woodring and Jullian Gerhart joined the team in March 2015.
Cameron, who ran track at Father Judge High School, had originally planned to walk on to the Division I team. After he decided he still wanted to attend Temple, the club gave Cameron a place he could continue to compete.
“I wouldn’t be running or anything, which is my favorite thing to do,” Cameron said. “It kind of would suck if we didn’t have it.”
Through word of mouth, Welcome Week tables and social media outreach, the club grew.
Sulon said the club expanded to about eight members last year. The club opened up to female runners this season, and now there are about 40 members who regularly attend practices, he said.
“This program, when I started looking things up, it dates back to the time of Jesse Owens in 1934,” Ho said. “Running at Temple runs very deep. Having a team and seeing about 50 people show up to practice every day means a lot. It really shows how many people care about running.”
Pickett and Alston have graduated, so Sulon, Ho and Hargrove are the last athletes remaining from Temple’s Division I team. Ho and Sulon will graduate this spring and Hargrove will graduate in the fall.
They’ve started grooming Cameron, the current club president, and Woodring as their replacements to run the club after they leave.
“I’m really excited to see how these guys progress,” Ho said. “It’s nice for me and Joe to compete at such a high level again, but he’ll tell you as much as I will that watching them compete and having a team to still compete at will be great.”
“It’s a lot of pressure because they’ve put a lot of work into it,” Cameron said. “It’s really important to me just to make sure all the efforts that they put in don’t go to waste.”
Evan Easterling and Owen McCue can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @TTN_Sports.
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Produced and designed by Donna Fanelle, Evan Easterling and Owen McCue.