The foreword to the history book

GYMKANA TROUPE: “The First Fifty Years”

Written by Todd Supple

Houston Bound: A Trip 50 Years In The Making

January 17, 1996

The troupers arrive at the North Gym to begin the first practice of Gymkana's 50th show season.  For most University students, the start of the semester is still a week and a half away, but for Gymkana it is time to prepare.  The Troupe has been invited to perform in the opening ceremonies of the National Association of Home Builders’ (NAHB) 52nd annual convention in the Houston Astrodome on January 26.  The theme of the convention is "Building the Strength of Our Nation Through America's Youth".  The NAHB is paying all the expenses to bring the entire Troupe and the four coaches (Dr. Joseph Murray, Josh Montfort, Robert Nelligan, and Todd Supple) down to perform.

The next few days, including a rare Sunday night practice, are given to honing all aspects of the upcoming performance.  Everything has to be timed.  The show in the Astrodome is on a tight schedule.  25 minutes.  Not a lot of time for six acts.  

The troupers also practice a three minute finale which will include a variety of acts, then will end with a pyramid incorporating the entire Troupe.

January 22  8:00 AM

Time to load the equipment truck.  Everything from the perch pole, almost 50 years old, to new chairs, bought only a couple years ago, is loaded.  Three troupers will drive the truck down to Houston - Phil Klavon, Peter Nolan, and Tom Toth.  In all, it's a journey of about 1500 miles.  Knowing all the things that have gone wrong with the equipment truck in past years (See Getting There) gives ample reason for some nervousness.  With the truck finally packed, it starts on the journey.  God speed, guys!

The rest of the Troupe goes upstairs for an early practice.

January 24  9:30 a.m.

Suitcases in hand, the troupers board a bus to BWI Airport.  The next few hours pass with check-in and boarding the flight to Houston.

Of course, having to sit on a plane for three and a half hours, some of the troupers can't resist a little mischief.  Dr. Murray is carrying a handbag containing money to cover expenses down in Houston.  Quite a bit of money.  He has the bag with him all the time... almost.  While he's away from his seat, Michelle Smith, the Troupe's treasurer, replaces Doc's handbag with an identical bag containing nothing more valuable than a few hand grips.

When the plane arrives in Houston, the troupers pick up their bags and board two buses waiting to take them to their hotel, La Quinta Astrodome.

Arriving at the hotel, Dr. Murray finally opens the hand bag he has been carrying for hours now, only to realize that the money isn't there.  Before Doc can start really panicking, the bag containing the money is returned to him.  

But the fun at Dr. Murray's expense isn't over yet.  When he asks if the guys driving the equipment truck have arrived, the manager of the hotel says, "There's a message for you."  She goes back into her office and comes out with a note which reads, "Allowed one phone call...  Need $....  Contact Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office."  

Actually, the truck had arrived the night before and the drivers had arranged this little reception.  Just the troupers showing how much they love and respect their coach.

By now, Doc's had enough excitement.  He and the troupers get a few minutes rest before going to dinner.

After dinner, they go to unload equipment.  Walking into the Astrodome, one is overwhelmed.  It's enormous.  With all of the elaborate exhibits from the vendors spread out around the grounds, it looks like a city.  But the stage on which the troupers will perform seems very small.  The troupers set up equipment, adjusting everything to get the best runs for the vaulters and tumblers.  

After briefly practicing the pyramid in the finale, the Troupe goes back to the hotel.  It's been a long day.  Lights out is at 11:00 p.m.  And if you believe that the troupers actually were in bed by then…

January 25

Dress rehearsal day.  Back at the Astrodome, the troupers practice each of the acts, getting used to the cramped conditions of the stage. One indication of the reception that the Troupe will receive is that, despite all the things they have to get done, the personnel putting the convention together often stop to watch the troupers practice.

After rehearsal of the acts in the 25 minute show, the Troupe spends a lot of time waiting around.  The three minute finale will also include flag teams from four Houston area high schools - fifty additional people on a stage that is already pretty packed.  It takes time to place the flag teams.  That's show business.

One last run through of the finale takes place at 5:30 p.m. and dress rehearsal is over.  Unfortunately Kelly Soltysiak, who had a knee injury and surgery the semester before, has problems again with her knee while doing the pyramid.  Nothing too serious, but she won't be able to perform the next day.  Coach Supple will take her place in the pyramid.  

January 26

Show day.  The troupers meet in the lobby of the hotel and have a light breakfast.  Gymkana's part of the opening ceremonies is set to begin at 12:20 p.m.  The Troupe arrives a couple hours ahead of time in order to get in some final practice.  The Astrodome is a mad house as everybody involved in the convention takes care of last minute details.  

Noon.  With ten thousand people in the stands, the opening ceremonies begin.  Music, fireworks, and spotlights panning across the stage accompany the words of an announcer.  "Good morning ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the grand opening ceremonies of the Builders’ Show and the 52nd annual convention and exposition of the National Association of Home Builders."

More fireworks and music.

"To celebrate our greatest national resource, America's youth, and the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, this morning's event will feature performances by more than one hundred high school and college students!"

The flag teams come on stage.  The Texas Army National Guard presents the colors.  More fireworks.  The Builders’ Show banner is unfurled above the stage.  

Jim Irvine, National Association of Home Builders’ President, welcomes everybody to the Convention.  LeAnn Rimes, a 13 year old rising star in country music, sings the national anthem.  Senator Phil Gramm, candidate for the Republican nomination for President at the time, gives a welcome speech to all of the conventioneers.

Backstage, the troupers are now lined up and waiting to go.  After Jim Irvine introduces Gymkana, the troupers come up the stairs and form a line across the stage.  Dr. Murray takes the microphone.  "Thank you very much for your warm welcome, and good morning," he begins.  "On behalf of the entire Gymkana Troupe from the University of Maryland, we would like to thank you for the invitation here this morning... Each one of our fifty college members has pledged themselves to be totally drug free.  And we sincerely hope that through our example of healthful living and through the performances that we give throughout the year we will be effective in encouraging everyone, the youth of the nation and everyone, to join with us in living a healthy, drug-free life.

"And now we would like to begin this morning's program with an act that has thrilled and entertained audiences for over fifty years.  Ladies and gentlemen, hold onto your seats, as the University of Maryland Gymkana Troupe Vaulters flip and twist through the air as they narrowly miss midair collisions."

Vaulting (an act that has been part of Gymkana’s repertoire for almost 50 years) begins.  The first couple runs go well; however, there is an accident when the troupers are doing flips.  Two of them collide and one of the ladies, Lizet Christiansen, is hit in the mouth.  The rest of the vaulters go on as Coach Nelligan helps Lizet until medics take her to the infirmary.  The act ends without any further mishap.  The crowd applauds enthusiastically at the end.

Hand Balancing (one of Gymkana’s original acts) is next.  The plan was for one women's triples group and two mixed doubles groups to perform balancing poses in tandem.  Unfortunately Lizet is in the women's triples act so that group can't go on.  The two mixed doubles pairs, Jonathan Szczepanski and Megan O'Bryan, and Monty Burton and Sandy Nguyen, receive a warm reception from the audience, however.

Meanwhile other acts in which Lizet was  to perform must be covered.  Anna Padlan, a senior member of the Troupe, will take Lizet's place in ladders.  Coach Montfort will take her position in the finale pyramid.

Apparatus is next.  The uneven parallel bars (first performed by lady troupers in 1961-62) and still rings (a regular part of Gymkana shows since 1959-60) are featured.  Anna Padlan is first on unevens, followed by Johnny Manzari on rings, then Sandy Nguyen on unevens, and finally Jonathan Szczepanski on rings.

Ladders (first performed by troupers in the 1947-48 season) follows, with two sets this year.  The act, something that the home builders in the audience have probably never seen done on ladders before, receives enthusiastic applause with each pose.

But time is running out.  Tumbling (an act featured in Gymkana’s very first public performance in 1947) is shortened, with tumblers doing only four passes of flip-flops, flips, and twisters, to keep on schedule.

Trampoline (an apparatus that was new when Gymkana first formed back in 1946) is the final act.  Four troupers perform their routines - David Hale, Felix Wang, Rich Baum, and David Bozak.  Again, the applause is incredible.  

The troupers pull some of the equipment to the back of the stage, while setting up for the finale.  Dr. Murray goes to the microphone to make some final comments, finishing up with, "And now will you please join with me in one last round of applause for the University of Maryland Gymkana Troupe!"

Troupers comes forward for a bow as ten thousand conventioneers come to their feet  in a standing ovation.  

When the applause dies down, the Troupe clears the stage and Jim Irvine returns.  "What do you think about our future with kids like this?"  More applause.  Jim then goes on to introduce the keynote speaker, Dr. William Bennett, author of "The Book of Virtues" and former Education Secretary.  Overwhelmed by the performance, Dr. Bennett comes to the microphone.  "Well, good morning.  First I'm going to do a triple flip for you.”  He pauses briefly for the audience laughter.  

"I was full of energy.  I had a nice set of remarks prepared for you.  Now I'm exhausted...”

Later in his speech, Dr. Bennett hits his stride.  "...It's a tremendous tribute to our young people that you've shown today by having Gymkana here and showing America what our young people are capable of.  I was thinking while they were performing of how it is that young people will get together, join in a group, gravitate toward each other, and share a common set of values...

“...Our children will form into groups.  Whether those groups become the Gymkanas of the world, the Boy Scouts of the world, or the Bloods and Crips of the world, depends an awful lot on what we do."  

The praise unfortunately goes unheard by the troupers behind the stage since there is no sound system there.  Instead they must wait for the finale and wonder how Lizet is doing.  No word so far.

At the end of his speech, Dr. Bennett leaves the stage to appreciative applause.

After brief comments from Jim Irvine, the finale begins.  The troupers come onto the stage, followed by the flag teams.  It's like a three ring circus with something to see everywhere!  Vaulting, tumbling, ribbons (a popular Gymkana act since the early 80s), chairs (first performed by troupers in 1947-48), rings, uneven parallel bars, juggling (variations of which have been performed by troupers for over 40 years), and the high school flag teams’ routine all go on at once to the background of a chorus singing "This Land is Your Land".  At the start of the final verse of the song, the troupers break from their separate acts and begin to build the pyramid.  From behind the stage an enormous American flag rises into the air.  The troupers finish building the pyramid and one trouper, Scott Welsh, climbs the old perch pole then presses into a handstand on top.  Fireworks explode as balloons and confetti rain down over the Astrodome.  The audience comes to its feet with an eruption of applause as the Opening Ceremonies conclude.

After things quiet down, the troupers form welcoming lines on either side of the stage to direct the conventioneers down to the floor of the Astrodome where the displays await.  The compliments are profuse as ten thousand people stream past, many of them claiming that this was the best opening ceremony they had ever attended.  And there are questions about how Lizet is doing.  Unfortunately, the troupers still know nothing.

Later in the day the Troupe finds out that Lizet has chipped one tooth and loosened a couple others.  She will need some dental work, but it's not as bad as it could have been.  She'll be able to come back to the hotel that night.

At 5:00 p.m. the troupers return to the Astrodome and load the equipment truck.  Phil, Tom, and Peter begin the return trek to the University, while the rest of the Troupe goes to a local mall.  On returning to the hotel, many of the troupers go to Lizet's room to spend some time with her.

January 27

Back to the Airport.  The Troupe has a bit of time after check-in before the flight, so some of the troupers wander around the airport.  When boarding time comes, however, two of the troupers are still missing - Michelle Smith, who had been responsible for the joke with Dr. Murray's hand bag, and Patricia Padrino.  The rest of the Troupe, except for Dr. Murray and Coach Montfort boards the plane.  Dr. Murray has the flight attendant page Michelle and Patricia.  

When he and Coach Montfort catch a glimpse of Michelle and Patricia running down the terminal walkway, they talk to the attendant, then hide behind the booth.

The ladies arrive at the station.

"Are you Michelle and Patricia?" the attendant asks.


"Well, your coach said that they couldn't wait any longer, and that you were to take the next flight out."

The ladies are on the verge of panic.

"He's really mad," the attendant continues, "but there's another plane leaving here in about an hour."

"Are you serious?!" Patricia asks.

Dr. Murray and Josh can't hold back any longer.  They come up from behind the booth, laughing hysterically.

The ladies almost fall over.

Revenge is sweet!

With everybody finally aboard the plane, it's time to go home.  

After landing, picking up bags, and boarding one final bus, the troupers arrive back at the University tired, but quite satisfied.  It has been a truly memorable trip.  The truck is scheduled to arrive back the next day, so there is no equipment unloading.  It's time to go home and rest.

But not for long.  In just six days, the Troupe is scheduled to perform its first full length road show of the season at Mayfield Woods Middle School in Elkridge, MD. No, there won't be ten thousand people there, or fireworks, or speeches from nationally known dignitaries, but there will be lots of kids who are at the age when they will be faced with a lot of choices about life, the type of kids that the Troupe has been trying to help since its inception.

Gymkana's 50th season has begun.