Sticking the Landing

Laurel Tindall has been the gymnastics coach at SPU since 1975. In that time, she has led the SPU gymnastics team to three national championships and coach gymnast to 32 individual titles. She has also been honored as national coach of the year four times. As a gymnast herself, Laurel was a ten time all American and was named to the U S national team in 1974.

Amanda: Laurel, thank you for joining us today.

Laurel: I’m glad to be here.

Amanda: So most of us know gymnastics as an Olympic sport, and we pay attention every four years when the U.S. team does something kind of miraculous, but gymnastics has been your life for quite a while.

Laurel: Yeah, I really started into this when I was a little kid. I guess it was my thing. I found out quickly it was my thing. I’m not like one of the kids today that did every sport in the book and did everything one day a week and was overbooked into things.

Amanda: Yeah, you just overbooked into one thing.

Laurel: Right.

Amanda: Do you want to tell us about how you got started in gymnastics?

Laurel: Yeah. I started at the recreation center on Magnolia. I grew up on Magnolia and very close to the recreation center, which is at Catherine Blaine Junior High, right in the center of Magnolia there. My mom died when I was very young, when I was six, and she told my dad, “You’ve got to get Laurel into gymnastics or dance or something. She’s going to grow up to be so tall and awkward.”

Amanda: Oh, no.

Laurel: Well, I don’t really think this is what she meant or that she ever thought that my involvement would go over so many years, but I did. I went into gymnastics. I stayed at the rec center in Magnolia until about when I was 13, and I had kind of outgrown what they could offer, but I did all kinds of other things there. That was my only diversity. I did tap dance and ballet and whatever they had to offer, and then went down to the Seattle YMCA at that point and trained under legendary coach, George Lewis, who was training several Olympians and things.

Amanda: Wow. So you just jumped, just fell into some amazing people, some amazing teams and coaches right away. What was it about gymnastics, do you think?

Laurel: Everybody likes to flip around and go upside down, don’t they? I figured. Ballet’s super boring.

Amanda: Sorry, ballerinas.

“Everybody likes to flip around and go upside down, don’t they?”

Laurel: Flipping around is fun, and learning new skills. I think the challenge of learning new skills has always been something that’s been attractive to me, and just learning how to do something and mastering it.

Amanda: And then how did you make your way to SPU?

Laurel: We trained at the YMCA for quite awhile, and in the fall of 1972, Ken Foreman engineered this. He at that point was the track coach here and was a legendary track coach here. He and George got together, and he asked George to bring his program out to SPU. We rented the lower gym at that point and trained there and developed not only our team program, but Ken had more in mind. That was the fall of ’72, and then in the fall of ’73 started the SPU team program. I was going to the University of Washington at that time, and I remember very clearly one night because I was still training over here for my elite training. Ken Foreman pulled me aside and said, “So what would it take to get you to come to school here?” I said, “Well, money,” the obvious answer. They found a way, and the whole program I feel was really the brainchild of Ken Foreman, seeing a way that SPU could be successful in a sport like gymnastics where you didn’t need a hundred people, like a football team or something could be. At that point, you could have three people and have a team score. He kind of engineered that, and we actually had four people, I think the first year. Won every meet during the season and went on to get fourth place at nationals in our first year of competition.

Amanda: That is incredible. And SPU is not a huge school for those who don’t know that, so what a testament to Ken for knowing that that was available and to our first team for doing such a great job. You were a student here and you were a student athlete, but you segued right into coaching, didn’t you?

Laurel: Well, that was Ken Foreman again. Between George Lewis and Ken Foreman, those are my two big mentors in life, I think. He was teaching the gymnastics classes. He was an international champion gymnast himself in the rope climb, and he was teaching the gymnastic classes in my senior year. Again, having no scholarships for women or anything, he told the administration, “Well, I think she can teach the PE classes.” So I taught the PE classes and they paid me to do that, and that was my scholarship for that year. Then at the end of that year he told the administration, “Well, I think she can coach the team,” so with his recommendation, I went right from being an athlete to being a coach and obviously had to coach some of my best friends and teammates.

Amanda: What was that like?

Laurel: A couple of those kids, two of those kids were in my wedding. They’re still good friends. We’re still good friends today. It was different. I kind of grew up coaching all my time in gymnastics though because that was what I did to make some money to be able to afford to do gymnastics. I had had a lot of experience coaching, and I was a little taller than some of the other girls, so they trusted me to spot them.

Amanda: That’s interesting. Yeah, I can catch you. That’s something I don’t usually think of as a coach. That’s a reason to trust someone is I can physically catch you. So you became the coach. When did you join the US national team?

Laurel: Well, I was competing elite during my whole time in college, so I competed in the 1972 Olympic trials and then in 1973 world championship trials. Then 1973 is Pan Ams, and 1974 was world championship trials. Then I was on a team that went to Germany on a kind of a goodwill tour to Germany, and we did shows all around Germany. Didn’t do any competitions, but just did shows. That was kind of my time. Gymnastics was very different then, and it’s come a long way in the last 50 years.

Amanda: Yeah. So from a child who spent most of her life Magnolia, Queen Anne, what was the tour through Europe?

Laurel: That was really, I mean it was really neat. There was six or seven other girls from all over the country and a couple of coaches. Our own coaches didn’t go, so it was right during the middle of fall quarter. I missed three weeks of school. That probably wasn’t the best thing, but I still did okay. It was in fall of ’74, so it was in my last year of competition. I was a senior. I started gymnastics really late since I was basically 13 when I actually started gymnastics. Nowadays, almost over the Hill when you’re 13, so the fact that I was able to get to an elite level and then compete college at that point was amazing for me, because I didn’t really see myself- I worked hard, but I didn’t really see myself as super talented, but I was in the right situation with the right coaches and stuff. George had trained a lot of Olympic athletes and that was what he was doing. Had it been like today, I never would’ve been able to afford a sport like gymnastics because it’s a luxury sport. It’s a monthly tuition type thing, and some of these kids are spending an excess of $500 a month. I never would’ve had the money to do that.

Amanda: What you said about being in the right place at the right time and coaching Olympic athletes across multiple sports got me to wondering. Do you feel that you were born to be a gymnast, or did you just have an athlete within you and gymnastics seemed to be what you were doing at the time? After doing it for this many years, I just wonder do you see yourself as a gymnast at heart or an athlete with the right coaches?

Laurel: I was probably an athlete with the right coaches. I was never, you’re one of those kids that you get put in gymnastics because you can’t sit still.

Amanda: Yeah.

Laurel: I was probably never one to sit still, and I’m still not. I’ve got to be up doing something, and I don’t think I was born to be a gymnast. I think it attracted me, tumbling and flipping, and I had some of the qualities you needed for that as far as a lot of flexibility at that point. It was kind of a natural sport for me, but then it gets harder when you get into the real sport and it’s not just some easy tumbling.

“It was kind of a natural sport for me, but then it gets harder when you get into the real sport and it’s not just some easy tumbling.”

Amanda: Yeah. When did you decide, “I am a coach.” So you went from athlete to teacher to coach, but when did you decide “I’m going to do this for my career?”

Laurel: I don’t know that I ever really decided that, as I say 44 years later. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision. There was definitely, I started coaching, I enjoyed coaching. I always enjoyed coaching and working with little kids, and I did that all all the time. I’d do my practice and then I’d coach a couple of hours after that with little kids, and then I kind of fell into the college job and then just stayed there, I guess. My husband worked at SPU also, so there was never really the impetus to go and apply for jobs at larger universities or anything like that, which I certainly could have tried to do.

Amanda: Sure.

Laurel: And just stayed here.

Amanda: So without going to a bigger program, say a D1 program with twice the girls, do you feel like there was a family atmosphere that you nurtured across those years?

Laurel: Yeah, I think that we started out very small, and still as I looked back over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking back over some of the results, and we had very small teams until 10 or 15 years ago when we really bumped up to the 19-20 kids on a team. Again, it’s very different. The growth of the program over the last 45 years is pretty amazing, starting out with three kids and growing to have a team. Some years, we’ve had teams of 22, so that’s a lot of a lot of girls to manage and coach and handle. We have three full time coaches now. We’ve always had our own training facility, and we bring in a lot of revenue through our community recreation program, so it’s kind of a whole spectrum of activities as far as the gymnastics program.

Amanda: All built by you and Ken. And others along the way, I’m sure. I remember asking you once about one of your proudest moments across the decades as a coach, and you were telling me about a championship win.

Laurel: Yeah. Our first national championship in 1986 was at Air Force Academy, and there were eight teams in the meet as there are in most of our national competitions. Going into the last rotation, this team was in last place. We had nothing to lose, and we went back to the warmup gym to warm up for our last event before we went out on the floor. It was just like, oh, yeah, let’s go for everything. Leave it all out there on the floor. Sure enough, it was on vault, and I don’t even remember were we really a good team or anything? I don’t really remember, but miraculously we did our vaults and I thought, “Well, at least we didn’t embarrass ourselves.” I mean, we had nowhere to go. Maybe we moved up a couple of places. Dan Lepse, who’s our current SID was in the stands, and he was crunching all the numbers. I went up to him and he goes, “I think you won.” I said, “No, there’s no way we could have won. We were in eighth place.” “No, really, I think you won.”

It was kind of like there’s no way that could happen, and sure enough we did. That was probably a huge surprise and something that you don’t see nowadays. That head to head competition where anybody can win, obviously if you’re in eighth place and can come up and win, that’s …

Amanda: Where every vault matters.

Laurel: That’s the way under underdog position.

Amanda: But that makes it more fun, doesn’t it?

Laurel: Yeah.

Amanda: More fun to compete where you always still have a chance. That’s great. If we could all change one thing about our day to day life, if all of Seattle got together and said, “I’m going to change this one thing that Laurel told me to change about my life and my day to make the world a better place,” what would you tell us to do?

Laurel: Wow, let’s see. That’s a tough one. I guess there’d have to be a lot of listening. Listening to what people are saying, what people are feeling, and then trying to work from that perspective. Just being in an individual sport, like I said, you just have so many different individuals that come to you. I think most of them come to me not believing they can be as good as they can be, so taking that and trying to make them better. Most kids don’t come in and say, “Oh, well, I’m really great at gymnastics already.” Most of them come in and they want to get better, and they’re eager and want to get better, and you sometimes have to give them that push. I think that’s one thing I’m really good at is giving them that push to make themselves better, whether it be academics or in the gym.

Amanda: Well, you make me want to be better at a lot of things.

Laurel: Well, you can come over to the gym and I can help you flip around a little bit.

Amanda Oh, I’m not sure I’m ready for that anymore. There’s a time and a place where I would have taken you up on that. Well, Laurel, thank you so much for being with us today, thank you for this amazing legacy that you have left to SPU, in SPU, through SPU, and in the world of gymnastics. Thank you so much.

Laurel: You’re welcome.

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