The Birth of High School Gymnastics in Chicago; Essay by Robert Pruter

To illustraate concept in text

Austin High School gymnastics team, 1928

Illinois since the 1920s has historically been among the top, if not the top, gymnastics programs in the high schools.  The sport was pioneered in the state in Chicago, where high school physical education instructors, who came out of the German Turners and Czech Sokols, pioneered and promoted gymnastics competition in the Chicago Public High School League.




Illinois today is one of the preeminent states for high school gymnastics, which is not saying much in 2019, as the sport has been in decline nationwide for some years now. Illinois preeminence was established by the pioneering work of Czech American Sokol and German American Turner gymnasts in Chicago who fought for and championed gymnastics competition in the high schools during the 1920s. This was an era where educators banned interschool competition in  girls’ sports, so gymnastics for girl high school students did not happen until the 1970s and the impact of Title IX Federal legislation.

Long before gymnastics developed in Chicago schools, the city had a vigorous gymnastics program that had been developed by its sizable immigrant populations of Germans, Czechs, and Slovaks. The Germans pioneered gymnastics in the city through their Turnvereins (Turners). The Czechs and Slovaks followed with a similar organization, called Sokol (Falcon] gymnastic clubs. By the 1870s, both organizations were well established in the city. Some of the athletic clubs in the city, notably the Chicago Athletic Association, also sponsored gymnastic competition, holding both senior and junior meets after the turn of the century. Both the Turnvereins and Sokols sponsored junior gymnastic programs. In a few years into the twentieth century an annual junior competition in Chicago was being conducted by the International Gymnastic Union, which brought together contestants from Turner halls and Sokols throughout the Chicago area.1

Chicago schools had adopted light gymnastics, or calisthenics, for their physical education classes as early as 1866. Under the heavy German and Turner influence in the city, in 1889 the Chicago Board of Education formally adopted the Turner system of heavy gymnastics, adding a formal course of exercises on apparatus to go along with the established calisthenics program. The Board hired a German Turner, Henry Sudor, to supervise the new program. In 1891, Northwest Division High opened with a gymnasium, recognized as the first indoor public high school gym in the nation. The building of gymnasiums in other schools, in Chicago and nationwide, rapidly followed, so that by 1914 all of the city’s 22 high schools had at least one gymnasium, and four of them had two, one for both sexes. Despite these developments, gymnastics was taught as a routine exercise, and not as a competitive sport, and the high school students found them dull and onerous. Indoor baseball and track, and later basketball, drew their interest,2

Despite Chicago’s rich background in gymnastics, the city was not the first major metropolitan area to develop a program in the secondary schools. Some New York schools adopted gymnastics earlier, notably Trinity School, a private school on Manhattan, which began conducting intramural gymnastic contests as early as 1899. After the turn of the century, Trinity was joined by more than a half-dozen schools in New York and New Jersey, both public (DeWitt Clinton and Commerce) and private (notably Horace Mann and Newark Academy). In 1901, Columbia University began sponsoring a gymnastics interscholastic meet. The tournament was conducted in April of each year from 1901 to 1903 in conjunction with Columbia University’s intramural tournament among its colleges. The tournament apparently died out from lack of interest.3

Gymnastics remained largely moribund in the New York-New Jersey area until it revived in the mid-1920s. In New York City, such schools as DeWitt Clinton, Stuyvesant, and Brooklyn Manual took up the sport, but they lagged behind their New Jersey counterparts competitively—notably Dickinson, Newark Central, and Emerson. The University of Pennsylvania began sponsoring a gymnastics interscholastic in 1924, and attracted such schools from New Jersey as Dickensen and Newark Academy, along with such Pennsylvania schools as Germantown, Philadelphia Northeast, and Haverford.4

Another notable meet was the annual Metropolitan AAU Interscholastic Gymnastics Championships, inaugurated in 1926 by Roy R. Moore, who was the United States gymnastics team coach in the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games. The first meet drew twelve public and private schools from the New York-New Jersey area. The first six places were held by New Jersey schools; the six New York schools failed to score any points. In the first year the meet was held in the gymnasium of the CCNY, but in subsequent years, the meet was held in New Jersey at Dickinson High. New Jersey schools dominated the competition throughout the meet’s existence.5

The Metropolitan AAU also conducted beginning in 1922 an annual championship for young men under 21 who were affiliated with club teams. The Swiss Turn Verein of Hudson County (where Dickinson and other New Jersey gymnastic powers were located) was particularly prominent, winning national AAU team championships in 1926 and from 1928 to 1939. The success of Dickinson did not go unnoticed, because in 1930 New York University hired their coach, Alexander Wilson, to run its gymnastics team. New Jersey undoubtedly was a pioneering state in gymnastics, as it presented its first state competition in the sport in 1926, decades before any other state sponsored a tournament. For example, in Illinois, which was a hotbed for gymnastics, it was not until 1952 that an invitational state tournament was launched, and not until 1958 that the first officially sponsored tournament was begun.6

About the same time as competitive gymnastics revived in the Eastern schools, in Chicago, the high schools began adopting the sport for the first time. Competitive gymnastics in the city schools was the product of some far-sighted hardworking individuals who had pioneered the sport for decades trying to build interest for their beloved sport. These individuals came through the rich tradition of gymnastics in the city’s Turner halls and Sokols. Thus, it was a Czech-American from the West Side of Chicago, Henry J. Smidl, who almost single-handedly introduced the sport to Illinois high schools.

Smidl was born 17 September 1894 in Chicago and grew up on the West Side of Czech parents in a Czech-American neighborhood. He attended Medill High, where he lettered in basketball, track, and baseball. He became a member of Sokol Chicago (24th and Kedzie), and won the national Sokol all-around champion from 1916 through 1927. He captained the Sokol team from the United State at the international Sokol Festivals in Prague, in 1920 and 1926. Smidl had begun teaching at Englewood High on the South Side in 1919 and there began an intramural gymnastics program.7

To illustrate concept in text

Lindblom High School novice gymnastics team, Coach Henry J. Smidl, 1925

Itching for competition, in 1924 Smidl persuaded the Public League to sponsor a team championship in the sport. He recruited two other schools to form teams and to participate, Harrison High and Lane Tech. Harrison was located in a West Side Czech neighborhood, and many of its students belonged to Sokol Chicago where Smidl also instructed in gymnastics. The following year Smidl moved to Lindblom, and started a program there. His team only competed in the novice division, which it easily won. The senior crown was contested by only two schools, Englewood and Harrison.8

To illustrate concept in text

Senn High School novice gymnastics team, 1926

The 1926 high school championship meet again featured seven novice teams and two senior teams. Lindblom and Harrison were the senior teams. Both divisions were won by Lindblom. A new gymnastics power would eventually emerge from one of the new novice teams, Senn High School, coached by Al Bergmann. He was also coach of the Lincoln Turners on the North Side, and was instrumental in making that program a national power.9

The 1927 Chicago Public High School League gymnastics meet was again dominated by Lindblom teams, which won both senior and junior titles, and taking first in 11 of 12 apparatus titles, and took all three places in the all-around championship. Senn High entered its first senior squad, and took third behind Lindblom and Harrison, in a field that increased to four (Hyde Park took fourth place). The novice field was a robust nine schools.10

To illustraate concept in text

Lindblom High School senior gymnastics team, Coach Henry J. Smid upper left, 1928

Lindblom High continued its domination of both the senior and novice divisions in the annual public league meet. In 1933, while Lindblom continued to win high school gymnastic titles, in the first time the Central AAU permitted high schools to compete in its gymnastics meet, Senn High edged out Lindlblom by a third of a point for the title.11

In 1937, Lindblom’s string of novice titles ended on the school’s 13th attempt, after winning 12 consecutive titles. But the seniors won their 12th title, Senn was showing its future championship form, by winning the novice title, with future national collegiate stars, the Shanken brothers, Courtney and Earl.  Courtney won the NCAA All-around title in 1941, and Earl won long horse 1940-1941-1942. The number of teams had become fairly standard by this time, at nine for the senior division, and nine for the novice division.12

To illustraate concept in text

Lindblom High School senior gymnastics team, 1939

In 1940, Senn High finally emerged triumphant, winning the league championship, ending Lindblom’s streak of 14 consecutive titles. The Public League changed the format for gymnastics competition, by dividing it up into three divisions—championship, intermediate, and novice. Only one team winner was decided, the school who won the combined points from all three divisions.13

Senn after winning in 1940 won five consecutive Chicago Public High School League titles up through 1944, all under Coach Al Bergmann. Withiin that time, Lindblom was without its famed coach, Henry J. Smidl, for three years, who had been transferred to Gage Park in that time. Smidl returned Lindblom to championship form in 1945, and captured the school’s 15th Public League gymnastics title. Lindblom won the title with an extraordinary high school gymnast who became one of the great gymnasts in United States history. He was William Roetzheim, who scored 98 out 100 possible points at the meet, He later coached Proviso East High in Maywood, Illinois, to three state championships.14

The sport would subsequently grow, even through the Depression, and by the end of the 1930s, eight schools were competing in the senior division and twelve schools in the novice division. In the early 1940s an intermediate division was created. The Public League system of competition thus was different from the system used by high schools later. One of Smidl’s greatest students, William Roetzheim, recalled, “The Chicago schools had three levels of competition in which points could be scored–novice, intermediate, and championship–and the reason Smidl won all those championships was that he put equal emphasis on all three levels. Some rival coaches just concentrated on the championship level.”15

Was Smidl one of those hard taskmaster coaches and was that the reason for his extraordinary results? “Not at all,” said Roetzheim, “Henry Smidl was a very easy going coach. By him being head of the school’s athletic department he did something that was not common then but is common now. He arranged that all the gymnasts would have PE the last period of the day, and thus could begin practice an hour earlier.”16

The Chicago high school competition was not originally conducted as a winter sport, being initially held in the third weekend in May. In 1937 the league meet was moved to the third weekend in April. It would not be until the mid-1950s that high school gymnastics in the Chicago area would become fully a winter sport.

Smidl would create a gymnastics dynasty in the Chicago Public League. Interrupted only by a three-year stay at Gage Park High in the early 1940s, Smidl before his retirement in the 1957 won 24 senior titles for the school. After his first decade at Lindblom, however, Smidl was challenged by another gymnastics power, Senn, whose team was coached by Al Bergmann.  During the 1940s and 1950s both Lindblom and Senn would produced practically all of the city’s high school team titles and graduate a host of gymnasts into national and international competition. Smidl died in retirement in Nevada in 1985.17

High school gymnastics as it developed in Chicago, as well as the New York-New Jersey area, was thus a product of the decades long development of the sport among the ethnic minorities from many nations of Europe–primarily Germany, Bohemia, and Slovakia—and it was these groups through their gymnastics clubs (Turnvereins and Sokols) that nurtured youth gymnastics and through their members in the school systems encouraged the sport’s development first as a physical exercise and then as a high school sport.


1. “Gymnasium,” The Cherry Circle Vol. 9, No. 1 (June 1903): 8; “Many Enter Gymnastic Meet,” Chicago Daily News 11/29/1911.

2. Gerald R. Gems, The Windy City Wars (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow, 1997): 66-68; Wilma Jane Pesavanto, “A Historical study of the Development of Physical Education in the Chicago Public High Schools 1860 to 1965,” (Evanston, Illinois: Ph.D Dissertation, Northwestern University, 1966): 46, 63, 85.

3.  “Interscholastic Sport,” New York Times, 1 January 1899; “Gymnastics At Columbia,” New York Times, 14 April 1901; “Columbia Gymnasts Compete,” New York Times, 10 April 1902; “Gymnastic Championship,’” New York Times, 10 April 1903.

4.  “Newark Second in Penn Gym Meet” New York Times, 6 April 1924; “School Gym Crown Won by Dickinson,” New York Times, 22 May 1926.

5.  “School Gym Crown Won by Dickinson,” New York Times, 22 May 1926; “Gymnastic Meet To West New York,” New York Times, 4 March 1928; “Met. Gym Title Won By Dickinson High,” New York Times, 7 April 1929.

6. “Dickinson Gymnasts Win New Jersey Title,” New York Times, 10 March 1929; “Gymnastic Meets Listed,” New York Times, 9 November 1930; “Vetreno Scores In Gym Contests,” New York Times, 5 April 1931.

7. Telephone interview with Stanley Barcal, Berwyn, Illinois, 14 March 1996; “Englewood, Senn Win In Prep Gym, Fencing Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 25 May 1924; “Englewood and Lindblom Win Prep Gym Meets,” Chicago Tribune, 24 May 1925; “Coaches’ Corner,” Chicago Tribune, 26 April 1951.”

8.  Ibid.”

9.  “Lindblom High Gymnasts Win,” Chicago Tribune, 23 May 1926.

10 “Lindblom Wins Two Titles in Gymnastic Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 22 May 1927; “The Gymnastics Team,” The Eagle, 1927 (Chicago, IL: Lindblom High School, 1927), p. 175.

11.  “Gymnastics,” The Eagle, 1933 (Chicago, IL: Lindblom High School, 1933), p. 119.

12  “Lindblom Gym Team Wins Twelve Title in a Row,” Herald and Examiner, 18 April 1937.

13.  “Senn Captures City League Gym Honors,” Chicago Tribune, 14 April 1940.

14.  “Lindblom Gym Team Wins City League Crown,” Chicago Tribune, 17 April 1945.

15.  Phone interview with William Roetzheim, Plant City, Florida, 7 March 1996.

16.  Ibid.

17.  “Lindblom Wins 13th Straight City Gym Title,” Chicago Herald & Examiner, 17 April 1938; Leonard Green, “Senn Reaches More Heights In High School Competition,” Chicago Herald-American, 8 February 1942.




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