Something very quiet, very special, very emotional took place Friday evening during the awards ceremony that capped off the Class 2A gymnastics team competition at the University of Minnesota Sports Pavilion.
As the gymnasts from St. Cloud Tech were called to the podium to receive their gold medals and championship trophy from members of the MSHSL board of directors, a woman in a wheelchair – behind the gaggle of gymnasts standing, cheering and applauding in front of the podium, and out of sight of many of those in attendance – ducked her head ever so slightly as Dave Swanberg, athletic director at LeSueur-Henderson High School and a member of the MSHSL board, smiled and placed a medal around her neck.
It didn’t take long for the Tech gymnasts to rush to the side of the woman in the wheelchair, because she is their coach, their mentor, their inspiration.
Colleen Stark-Haws has been dealing with multiple sclerosis since 2005, and she has little control of her body below the shoulders. She and husband Joel Stark-Haws have been coaching gymnastics at Tech since 1997, and Friday’s results were special on many levels.
It was the Tigers’ very first state team gymnastics championship. They have qualified for state for 11 years in a row, every year since 2006, and never won. Tech has never even had an individual all-around state champion. And to do it this year, when Roseville was attempting to win its fifth consecutive state title, and seeing that big blue ribbon and big gold medal hanging around Colleen’s neck … words really don’t do it justice.
“This has been so many years of work,” Colleen said. “We love this sport and we coach the beginner’s classes from kindergarten all the way through the high school. And to see the years and years of effort that the coaches and the gymnasts have done, and to keep believing that an outstate team could get it done. We’re just so proud, so proud.”
The Tech athletes were in tears as they huddled around Colleen. She spoke to them, but that was a private moment between her and eight high school kids, and they deserve to own that moment themselves forever. They posed for photos with Colleen and Joel, smiling the kind of meaningful smiles that arrive through hard work, commitment and a love for those you spend so much time with.
“It was a celebration tonight for all of us, and I wanted to make sure she was a part of this, and so did the kids,” Joel said. “It wasn’t even a thought; we all wanted to come over and share that moment and make sure that she was a part of that. Because she is the backbone of this program and it was just so exciting, it really was.”
Colleen and Joel were high school sweethearts at St. Cloud Cathedral and classmates at St. Cloud State. Their son Eli is also part of the coaching staff.
I asked Joel a question that I knew he couldn’t answer: Is it possible to measure the inspiration that Colleen provides for the team?
“You certainly cannot measure the inspiration that Colleen gives to our program, to me, to our family, to the people who are in our lives,” he said. “No, absolutely not. You can’t measure it. She just continues to inspire. It’s a group effort and we know it, and it’s always concentrate on what you can do; which easily falls into gymnastics. That’s what you’ve got to do. Don’t focus on the bad things that happen or the mistakes you made, concentrate on what’s coming up and what you can contribute. It’s unbelievable. Very special.”
When I asked Colleen what the moment meant to her, her answer said everything.
“It means that it’s all worth it. The everyday struggles just get washed away in a moment like this.”
Here are the Class 2A gymnastics team scores:
1. St. Cloud Tech 149.125
2. Roseville 147.925
3. East Ridge 147.375
4. Champlin Park 146.800
5. Cambridge-Isanti 146.200
6. Owatonna 146.125
7. Eden Prairie 144.225
8. Lakeville North 141.175
In Class 1A, Detroit Lakes put on a very strong performance and repeated as the state champion. The final standings looked like this:
1. Detroit Lakes 150.225
2. Melrose 147.025
3. Becker 144.325
4. Austin 144.275
5. Watertown-Mayer/Mound-Westonka 143.175
6. Mankato West 141.650
7. Mahtomedi 141.325
8. Worthington 134.450
HOCKEY TITLE GAMES ARE SET
At Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, state semifinals were held in the girls state hockey tournament. Top-seeded Blake and third-seeded St. Paul United advanced to Saturday’s Class 1A title game. Blake beat Proctor/Hermantown 5-1 and St. Paul United beat Warroad 4-3.
In Class 2A, Saturday’s championship game will be between third-seeded Eden Prairie and fourth-seeded Maple Grove. Eden Prairie defeated Edina 1-0 and Maple Grove beat unbeaten defending state champion Hill-Murray by the same 1-0 score.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 506
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 8,360
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn