Gymnastics identifies Larry and Chris Ward of Geneseo.
Gymnastics identifies Larry and Chris Ward of Geneseo.
Chris Ward has been involved in some level of the acrobatics/tumbling most of her life and her husband, Larry Ward, became involved when the couple married in 1976.
Their accomplishments are many and their achievements were recognized on Sunday, July 15, at the 2018 Illinois Senior and Awards Banquet in Glen Ellyn, by the Illinois US Gymnastics, as recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Ward said she is “humbled” in receiving the award, “because we continue to enjoy coaching and teaching a sport we love.”
Her love for the sport dates back to her high school days in Geneseo when she was a cheerleader and did tumbling.
“When the Geneseo Park District was in its beginning stages with Bob Orsi as director, Joanne Gernant was one of the directors and knew that I was in the Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University, Normal,” Ward said. “I was asked to direct a summer program for the Geneseo Park District in 1973. The program was a success with many students and a great group of teachers.”
The program continued with Deb Klemmer and Ward co-directing and teaming up during the summers when they were in college.
The Ward couple was married in 1976 and Larry Ward joined the show by performing acro-sports with his wife.
“We enjoyed teaching tumbling together and he encouraged me to continue as the recreation coordinator for the Geneseo Park District,’ Chris Ward said.
Gymnastics continued with lessons held at various locations.
Chris recalled when she and her husband attended a national meet in Chicago to purchase mats, a beam, set of bars, and a vault board when the items were sold after the meet, and the couple watched Mary Lou Retton compete against Diane Durham and other gymnasts at that meet.
Ward Gymnastics continued to grow and the business was moved to the former skating rink in Geneseo.
“Our equipment was set up on Sundays for classes on Mondays and Tuesdays and taken down for skating and then put back up for lessons on Saturday mornings,” she said. “We were competing in Illinois and Iowa and former students Vanessa Landrum and Pam Rodgers were the first state title winners for our new club,” Ward said.
The couple’s efforts to build a gym in Geneseo were not feasible and when they learned of an available gym in the Sterling Westwood Sports Complex, the couple moved Ward Gymnastics to Sterling in 1979 when it continued until 1994.
“The Sterling gymnasts were very successful and earned state wins,” Chris Ward said. “Nine gymnasts received full scholarships to Illinois State, Western Illinois University, University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Wisconsin. Several gymnasts from Ward Gymnastics remain involved in coaching and teaching in Illinois and other states.”
A decision to retire from gymnastics came in 1993 when the Ward couple felt they needed to have more time with family.
At that time, their four children were involved in many activities, they both worked full time, had a girls’ and boys’ USTA tumbling program, a USAG girls’ and boys’ gymnastics program and close to 450 students.”
Chris Ward was also attending a counseling program at Western Illinois University and accepted a counseling position at the former Geneseo Junior High School (and continues in that position at the Geneseo Middle School).
The family returned to their hometown of Geneseo in the fall of 1994.
Larry Ward continued to work at National Manufacturing in Rock Falls.
The gym in Sterling was purchased by one of their former students.
With the return to Geneseo, Larry Ward was asked to direct the Geneseo Park District gymnastics program, and he accepted the position with the stipulation that he would stay “until they found a new person to take over the program,” he said.
Their daughter, Annie, wanted to compete in gymnastics at the high school level and the Ward couple requested a program be established at the high school.
A high school program was established at Geneseo High School that allowed individuals to compete in IHSA competitions in the fall of 1995.
“This developed into a team program that now includes from 12 to 26 athletes per year traveling and competing at the IHSA meets in the Chicago area; DeKalb; Hazel Green, Wis., and to a national meet in Ft. Myers Beach, Fla.
“The GHS team is the only downstate team in Illinois from the Chicago area,” Ward said.
Through the years the family has made many friendships and “so many memories,” Ward said.
“Each year, the gym performed a circus that included every student and class with a variety of themes and monumental performances,” she said. “The area football teams or dads/brothers performed acro-sport acts each year with the team gymnasts…Our family performed an act each year that included everything from the ‘Flintstones’ to impersonating ‘New Kids on the Block’.”
When the Ward children finished college, married and moved from the area, Chris Ward asked her husband if, in addition to the high school team, they could start a USA Junior Olympic team with the Geneseo Park District.
That has become a reality and there are now approximately 15-20 Junior Olympic gymnasts competing in Illinois at various levels.
“Last year, one of our high school gymnasts, Madison Munoz, was invited to compete at a national meet in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., and she did a great job representing Illinois.”
“Gymnastics makes students strong physically, mentally and emotionally,” Chris Ward said. “Our three daughters, Annie, Kate and Mackalah have competed, taught, or are teaching/coaching at the present time. Our son, Michael, has not taught gymnastics, but having learned the basic in gymnastics perhaps helped him in football,” she said.
“All of this would not have been possible without Larry’s expert coaching and spotting,” his wife said.
“The Geneseo Park District, including program directors Deb Klemmer and Jackie Beach, have been great and have made it possible to continue the sport in Geneseo,” Ward said.
Tara Koustas, Geneseo, helps the Ward couple in teaching all levels of gymnastics at the Community Center.
“Memories of teaching and coaching gifted athletes, making friendships and having the gymnastics world as a second family means the world to us,” she said.
The couple agreed that they do have “really” stressful days, but when they get to the gym after work, they both immediately feel more positive and jump into coaching which makes them feel wonderful in about ten minutes.
Michael Ward shared how growing up in a family centered around gymnastics helped shape their communities.
“They have taught (gymnasts) that their bodies could do amazing feats of strength, skill, and grace if they simply believe in themselves,” he said. “My parents have a knack of evoking skills, discipline, and grit out of individuals that they do not know is possible.
“I know this because I see the looks of admiration and hear the stories that alum of their programs tell when they are reunited. I believe that this is and always has been the driving force for my parents to spend 30-40 hours a week “at the gym” (on top of each having a full-time job and family).
“They do what they do because they love to see kids grow, master skills, conquer fears, learn from failures, and eventually apply that in life.”
The Ward family made the gym feel like they were welcoming everyone into their home.
“The gym was our second home with a second family,” Mackalah Ward Green said. “Trampolines are wonderful babysitters for kids, whether you are jumping on them or playing ‘Barbies’ under them.”
With motivation all around them, athletes could find a little extra push anywhere they looked.
“I was inspired by the sayings on the walls and our family always working as a team,” Kate Ward Pohlmann said. “There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears put into gymnastics that made it special. The gymnasts and coaches had such great hearts.”
And learning how rewarding teaching can be.
“The people involved at our gym were gifts,” Annie Hawker said. “I also learned that it is important to work hard at something that is very difficult to do. Gymnastics is difficult to do and to teach. The results are amazing for everyone.”