By Mark Schnabel
Newton Kansan
Newton High School gymnastics coach JoAnne Thaw has been a crusader for her team and her sport during her 37 years inNewton.
Her dedication has been recognized at the national level as she has been named the National Federation of State High School Association National Coach of the Year.
The NFHS is the national governing body of high school sports. The Kansas State High School Activities Association is a member of the NFHS. Thaw has been named sectional coach of the year several times. She also is the state coach of the year in gymnastics.
Her teams have won three state titles, the last coming in 2009. The award is for the 2009-10 school year.
The award will be presented Friday during Newton senior night activities.
Thaw is one of 21 coaches honored. There were coaches honored in 10 boys’ and girls’ sports. Thaw was honored as the top coach not in basketball, track and field, volleyball, soccer, tennis, golf, cross country, swimming and diving, field hockey and golf.
Thaw said she found out about the honor in an e-mail.
“The Kansas Coaches Association send out a e-mail congratulating the winners from Kansas,” Thaw said. “There was a basketball coach from Olathe (Steve Ingram of Olathe South) and myself. I got an application, but I didn’t think much about it. I sent it in and that was about it.”
Thaw said coaching was her calling.
“I always think I was meant to be a coach,” Thaw said. “When I was six years old in the neighborhood, I would charge five cents a cartwheel. I started competitive gymnastics as a sophomore in high school. I continued into college. I think teaching has been in my blood. It’s something I’m very passionate about.”
Thaw competed at Fort Lupton High School in Colorado, going on to Adams State.
At Adams State, she met a wrestler from Newton, Jack Thaw, who helped lead Adams State to a national title in 1973. The two were married and came to Newton. Jack Thaw would become head wrestling coach at Newton. He currently coaches the wrestling teams at Halstead and Sedgwick.
“The wrestlers liked to hang out and watch the gymnasts,” JoAnne Thaw said. “I thought I would be here a couple years. It just kind of happened. We both just got so involved in our teaching and coaching. After his dad and his brother died, he thought he needed to stay here and help out his mother.”
JoAnne Thaw’s first year at Newton came in 1975.
“I just wanted to coach,” she said. “When we moved to Newton, I found out they had a gymnastics program. Janis Whitfield and I came here at the same time. She was assistant volleyball and I was assistant gymnastics. We were actually volunteers. At the end of the year, they had a little left over in the budget, and so they gave us a little money. We both became head coaches the next year.”
Success came quickly for Thaw, Her second year, 1976, Newton won the Class 4-3-2-1A state title. The sport was moved to the fall the following season and Newton won again.
“We held our own until we went back into one class,” Thaw said. “Our three-month gymnasts couldn’t compete with the year-round gymnasts. In 1988, I started the Flip-Flop Shop, which helped us be competitive again. It took us a long time, but we’re competitive again.”
Thaw said the biggest difference between her early years and today is the number of available gymnasts.
“When I started, we had 24 or 25 girls competing,” she said. “It was difficult coaching that many. I would condition them really hard. Now I look for kids to come out. When I first started, we had a high level of competition. Then we went a long time without getting to the state meet. Now, we’re back at the level where we’re competitive.”
When Thaw started at Newton, there were fewer sports for girls to compete.
She credits the years she’s put into the sport as the key to her success.
“Even though I won a state championship those first two years, I’m a much better coach than I was then,” she said. “The biggest thing is the relationship and making the kids believe they can be winners.”
Perhaps her most emotional season came in 2009. There were proposals to end the sport at Newton. While the team was spared from the chopping block, the gymnasts had to raise the money required to continue the program.
At the state meet, Newton’s Riley Roberts won the floor exercises as the last Railer competitor in the meet. Her score, coupled with a penalty against Shawnee Mission Northwest, lifted Newton into a tie for first with Lawrence Free State.
“I gave literally 200 percent,” Thaw said. “I ate, lived and slept gymnastics. By the end of the season, I was worn out. That rubbed off on the team.”
She said herself and the team may have suffered an emotional crash this season, finishing fourth despite entering state with some of the top regular-season scores.
This year’s team loses four seniors and returns four underclassmen. She is hoping some underclassmen who have previously competed as youth will come back out. She also is expecting some freshmen to come in and bolster the numbers.
Thaw has coached a number of individual state champions, including Connie Tatum and Tina (Harrison) Garcia. Christi Lehman won a state all-around title when Hesston had a co-op team with Newton. Roberts won the floor in 2009.
“It takes a gymnast with total dedication,” Thaw said. “It’s hard to do, especially with so many other activities they are involved with, and I respect that. Most of the girls you see winning at state these days compete year round. They go to club when high school is over.”
Thaw retired as a teacher, but still serves as a substitute. She taught physical education for 32 years.