CANON CITY - As a gymnastics program, Cañon City is a blooming flower perched from the weeds of a diminishing sport.
It's not the statewide competition or the safety concerns revolving around high school gymnastics that gets all the attention. It's the uncertainty of talent and the future of high school gymnastics that plants it as one of the most, if not the most, unique sports across the school yard.
Top-tier talent continues to elude the high school floor, bar, vault and beam events.
"I mean, most girls who are pretty good are like, 'Why bother with gymnastics at high school?'" said junior Kylie Cook, a two-time state qualifier and the daughter of Cañon City coach Michelle Cook. "I was different. I wanted to be here. I wanted to represent my school out there."
She's one of the few. Cañon City's gymnastics team is ballooning in size in a high school sport that is doing anything but.
"We're a little lucky. We get to use the Cañon Academy, the local gym, so that gives us a place to practice and a place where people can see - so it's nice exposure," said Michelle Cook, who has nine girls on the team. "We always get someone coming up to us saying they would know someone who might be interested in joining us, and I tell them we are accepting of whoever comes our way. And we will work to get them better."
That attitude has helped the Tigers, but not much elsewhere. Many high school gymnastic coaches aren't sure how long the sport will stay alive in high schools. Since 2009, participation numbers are down nearly 20 percent across the state.
One reason: club managers. Across the nation, they have not been mutually supportive of high school competition for elite gymnasts, and many of them see it as a second-rate environment.
"If you are trying to do both high school and club gymnastics in the winter it is going to be tough on your body," Luke Barfield, a manager of the Colorado Aerials, told The Gazette in the past. "And honestly, if you want to focus on hard and tough gymnastics, you will want to stay on club."
Words like his have ripped high-level talent from schools. A few years ago, Kiersten Wang, arguably the top gymnast to come out of Colorado Springs in the past seven years, never competed for Palmer Ridge. Instead, she stuck to competing for the Aerials, went to the University of Florida and is a club manager.
But if there is a good sign for high school gymnastics, a glimmer of hope, it's Cook and the Tigers. They return two state qualifiers from a season ago in Kylie Cook and Kyndra Tezak, and added talented newcomers like Katarina Christian, who'd been competing in USA Gymnastics before breaking an ankle a little more than a year ago.
Today, elite-gymnast Kylie Cook wouldn't trade her high school team for anything.
"Of course we want to set our goals and I want to do the very best I can around the state, but that's not all gymnastics is to me," said Kylie Cook, who has been competing at this level since she was a freshman. "I just love being with these girls while we get to represent our high school. You can't trade that."
Coach: Michelle Cook, seventh year
Key athletes: Kylie Cook, jr.; Katarina Christian, so.; Kyndra Tezak, so.
Outlook: Kylie Cook will be another state threat this season. She is hoping to make the state finals in two events after placing 14th in the vault last season. As to which two events? She says it doesn’t matter.
Coach: Kaitlin Latrell, first year; Laurinne Kinney, second year
Key athletes: Kenzie Reifschneider, sr.; Kaitlyn Bertrand, so., floor; Briana Lindly, fr.; Abigail Miller, so.; Macie Campbell, jr., Shannon Egleston, jr..
Outlook: The Eagles are returning three gymnasts from a season ago and added three newcomers. Four of the six gymnasts have club experience. In a season that the coaches say could be a breakout season for the Eagles, Egleston and Campbell return to the team after injuries from a season ago.
Not reporting: Rampart, Palmer Ridge