'It's time': Sikich set to step down after 31 years
For the past 31 years Mark Sikich has worked to raise the bar.
However, this season will be his last. The longtime Park gymnastics coach is stepping down from the job at the end of the year - his 31st as a coach.
"I'm just all torn up about it," Sikich said. "Part of me definitely wants to still be involved. But, when your body is telling you it's time it probably should be. One thing I never want to do with our girls is to short them at all as far as my energy level and ability to coach with high spirits, high energy and high motivation."
Sikich is a three-time gymnastics Coach of the Year award winner. He is also a member of the Minnesota Girls Gymnastics Coaches Association Hall of Fame and a Concordia University -- St. Paul Athletic Hall of Fame member.
Sikich grew up in Hibbing and is a 1983 graduate of Concordia University where he was a standout football and tennis player. After graduating college, Sikich honed his coaching skills at Concordia University, DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis and at St. Paul Central High School. Gymnastics coaching great Mike Amidon hired Sikich on at Park.
"I think about the opportunity Mike Amidon gave me," Sikich said. "He took a chance on me. I really appreciated the chance he gave me to coach with him. That's how things started and we took off from there. Michael was such a great teacher and mentor to me."
Sikich likes to tell a story from his first year as a coach at Park, saying it's one of his fondest memories.
According to Sikich, in the 1980's a great score for a high school gymnastics team was in the 130's. In Park's very first meet with Sikich as coach, the team scored a 119 - which was the best score in Park history - and the girls were thrilled. However, Sikich felt like the team had a lot of work to do.
Halfway through the season, he told the girls if they scored a 133 in the section meet, they could probably make the state tournament.
Just over a month later, Park scored a 132.8 in the section meet and qualified for state.
"It's about where you start and where you finish with the kids and the lessons you learn along the way," Sikich said. "It's not wins and losses. It's the journey. You just hope the kids have enough fun that they want to try it again next year, they want to get other people involved and they want to train and get better."
In addition to coaching the Park gymnastics team, Sikich - a physical education teacher at Park - judges gymnastics meets every winter and is also an assistant coach on the Park football team in the fall. He said, in the winter, he can work upwards of six days a week from roughly 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
"It's hard to do and it's wearing on me after 31 years," Sikich said. "This year I've really felt it. I think it's a combination of everything I'm involved in and how busy I am. My body is getting drained. I don't want that to effect what I'm doing with the girls in the gym. Sometimes I'm a little pig-headed, but when your body tells you it's time, it's time."
Co-head coach Terry Hardy will take over as head coach. Sikich said he plans on continuing to teach "a few more years" and hopes to remain on as an assistant football coach.
Hardy, who has coached gymnastics for 16 years despite only being 37, was an assistant coach when Park won the team state championship title in 2004. He then spent four years as the head coach at Hastings, before returning to Park for the last three-and-a-half seasons.
"Every year Mark has delegated more and more to me," Hardy said. "It's been a nice transition. It wasn't all on my plate at once. This year, he's left a lot up to me. Now I understand what he does, why the gym is so successful and why when we host meets, they're so successful."
Hardy gives Sikich a lot of credit for building one of the state's top gymnastics programs year-in and year-out.
"In 30 years, he's done so much for this program," Hardy said. "He still sees some things that I can't see yet. It's almost like I'm learning his Jedi tricks. It's pretty fantastic that for 30 years he was able to be with one school, progress everything and turn it into what we have today."
Park has qualified for the state meet as a team the past two seasons, placing as high as third. The Wolfpack is currently ranked seventh in Class AA with a 141.508 average and has a high score of 144.225 this season.
It was the goal of Sikich and Amidon to "establish a consistent program" at Park, he said, and to work with all the program's athletes - from the youngest gymnasts to the top varsity performers.
"We wanted to be competitive year-in and year-out with no peaks and valleys," Sikich said. "We tried to be even-keeled. In the years you get a couple of kids here or there and you're healthy you can take off. That was my plan.
The bottom line for Sikich is that the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the name on the back.
"That's what this whole thing is all about," Sikich said. "It's about all of the kids who busted their tails the years before. We're honoring the people who have paved the way for what we have now."
Two of Sikich's former gymnasts, Lindsey Raymond and Krissie Thrush have returned to Park as assistant coaches for the past three seasons.
"It's inspiring that he's stayed with the sport so long," Thrush, a 2004 Park graduate, said. "A lot of people get frustrated with it, because it can be overwhelming. But, it's awesome that he's stayed with it. He knows when to have fun and when to get down to business. He's probably the most strict out of us four."
Raymond, a Park 2002 graduate, credits Sikich for getting her to stick with gymnastics.
"After I left club I hated gymnastics. I was totally burnt out," she said. "He made me like the sport again. He made it fun. Now, 11 years later, I'm still part of the sport."
Sikich said he believes the Park gymnastics program is in good hands.
"I think the current coaching staff with Terry, Lindsey and Krissie are incredible," he said. "I have no doubt the program is going to continue to get better. There's room to grow and I think the program is headed in the right direction and will be strong for years to come."
Sikich said coaching gymnastics at Park has "meant everything" to him and the connections he's made over the years are what he holds most dearly.
"The families and the relationships have been the biggest thing," Sikich said. "Seeing the kids I've coached now have kids or now be coaches, or doctors or lawyers or teachers is wonderful. I could go on and on about the success that a lot of young ladies have had in their lives after graduating from Park and being part of our program. That's what it's all about."