The IUP gymnastics team, with coach Dan Kendig, right, and assistant Gary Stam, after taking the national championship at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo in 1989
Reliving the night she and her teammates sizzled at nationals invariably gives Rose Johnson Bird chills.
She pops in a videotape of the 1989 United States Gymnastics Federation Division II/III championships and is magically transported back 25 years, to a time when IUP reigned as the premier team in the land. On her television screen, the Indians bound toward the podium with unbridled joy, like kids set loose on the last day of school, after holding off host Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo 186.05-184.90 to repeat as national champions.
“Believe me, it’s one of the highlights of my life,” said Bird, who resides in Cape Coral, Florida, and sells designer accessories online. “I mean, how can it not be? It was such an amazing feeling. I get chills just watching the tape.”
No IUP team, in any sport, has claimed a national title since that transcendent performance in California by coach Dan Kendig’s gymnasts on April 7, 1989.
“We just had a great group of athletes who wanted to win,” said Kendig, now in his 21st season at Nebraska, where he has twice won NCAA Coach of the Year honors. “I think the neatest thing about what we were able to do there was we did it with talent that maybe some Division I schools weren’t that interested in, for whatever reason. I took a chance on some kids, and it worked out.”
One of them captured a pair of individual titles in San Luis Obispo. Bird, then a junior, won the all-around championship, tied Bridgeport’s Maureen Lagrua for top honors in the floor exercise, and placed second on beam and fifth in the vault.
IUP Team National Champions
1968 Golf NAIA
1988 Gymnastics USGF
1989 Gymnastics USGF
Final Standings, 1989 National Meet
Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo 184.90
Southeast Missouri State 183.25
Seattle Pacific 180.15
Bridgeport (Connecticut) 179.10
Winona (Minnesota) State 178.45
Texas Women’s University 178.00
Air Force Academy 177.80
The miracle is that she was competing at all. Bird broke her back in a fall from the bars two years before and spent four months in a body cast—by choice, such was her passion for the sport.
“The doctors wanted to put a rod in my back—they said it was better for me in the long run,” Bird recalled. “But they told me if they did that, I’d never be able to do gymnastics again. I’m like, no, I want the body cast. I loved gymnastics and I loved competing for IUP, and I wanted to compete again. So I took the body cast and then just worked my butt off to get back.”
Bird wasn’t the only star in the IUP firmament. Senior Michelle Goodwin (now Goodwin-West), a fellow inductee in the school’s athletics hall of fame, won a national title on beam in 1989 and finished third in both the all-around and the vault. Sophomore Janine Palschakov (now Sievert) earned runner-up honors in the bars, and senior Lori Henkemeyer finished fourth in the vault. All four had earned All-America honors the year before, too, when the Indians beat out Southeast Missouri State 181.70-179.55 to win their first national championship.
IUP’s status as a gymnastics powerhouse in the late 1980s stemmed largely from Kendig’s mastery as a recruiter and motivator, assistant coach Gary Stam’s technical expertise, and a tight-knit group of athletes who bonded over their love of the sport and were willing to work long hours to perfect their routines.
Kendig’s fearless approach to scheduling played a prominent role, too. IUP regularly challenged—and often humbled—the premier major college teams in the East.
“My philosophy from the first day I got there was to meet all the big guys,” Kendig said. “We went to Penn State, we went to Ohio State, we went to Pitt, we went to West Virginia, North Carolina, North Carolina State, George Washington, Maryland. And the years I was there we wound up beating every school on our schedule at least once, except Penn State. And we gave them a run for it.”
Performing in hostile environments against big-time foes served to toughen the Indians. Forged by the fires of Division I competition, they arrived at regionals and nationals in championship form.
“The way to make yourself better is to compete against people who are better than you, so you rise to that level,” said Goodwin-West, a middle school reading and language arts teacher who resides in Sarasota, Florida. “I think that was Dan’s purpose in having us compete so much with Division I programs. By the time we got to the regionals and the nationals, we really felt we belonged.”
Especially in 1989. Goodwin-West and her teammates marched into the Cal Poly-SLO gym brimming with confidence. Defending champions often crumble under the weight of lofty expectations; the Indians embraced their role as the team to beat.
“Some people, once you’ve won it one time, they go, oh my gosh, we have to defend, it’s extra pressure on us,” Goodwin-West said. “But I think that the core of us still there from the championship in ’88, we looked at it as, okay, we’ve got this. We just need to step up and make it happen.”
The Indians executed with near-flawless precision from the outset, equaling a school record with a score of 46.3 on beam, their first event, behind Goodwin-West’s 9.6. Bird then led the way in the vault with a 9.6, tying a school record, and a 9.55 in the floor exercise.
Entering the final rotation, IUP and Cal Poly-SLO were tied at 139.05. Yet in a situation when their nerves should have been taut as piano wire, the Indians proved positively unflappable. Every one of them nailed their routines on bars, paced by Bird with a 9.55 score. IUP’s school-record 47.0 in the event sealed the victory, and an announcement moments later triggered a mad dash to the podium.
“We were just sitting on the floor and they started giving results,” said Sievert, a resident of Springfield, New Jersey, who teaches preschool, works as a massage therapist, and coaches gymnastics. “They introduced the sixth-place team, fifth-place team, fourth place, and they would go up on the podium. When they announced the second-place team, and it wasn’t us, we knew that we had won, and we ran full speed up to the podium. I don’t think any of us were really surprised we won, because we all knew how well we had done. It was just a wonderful feeling, one of the best experiences of my life.”
In the foreground, left to right, head coach Dan Kendig, Dina Carrieri, Jennifer Sokol (kneeling), Janine Palschakov, and assistant coach Gary Stam. On balance beams: Melanie Morris, Rose Johnson, Suzanne Oaklander, and Laura Perfetti. Standing: Tracey Jobes, Michelle Goodwin, Jenn Phelan, Mandi Petruska, and Lori Henkemeyer.
Alas, the program that made history at IUP soon was history. The university de-emphasized gymnastics and then discontinued it altogether following the 1997-98 season, only nine years after the Indians were hailed as national champions—again.
“When I heard they were dropping gymnastics, I was shocked,” said Goodwin-West. “It was devastating, knowing how successful the program had been and how respected it was around the country.”
All that’s left of IUP gymnastics now are the memories, highlighted by a golden afternoon in the Golden State. Even 25 years removed from that momentous achievement, even with all of his successes at Nebraska, Kendig still reserves a special place in his heart for the team that brought a second straight national title to IUP.
“They were good kids, they worked hard, and we had real chemistry on that team,” he said. “I’ve been a big fan of chemistry my whole career, everywhere I’ve gone, that kind of team-above-self mentality. I just thought the chemistry on that team was exceptional. And we had great talent to go with it. It was almost like the perfect storm.”
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Lasting bonds have been forged in IUP student groups and programs
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