FISHERS – As long as she can remember, gymnastics has always had a place in Susie Strange’s heart. Even when her competitive career ended and she went to college, got married and started a family of her own, Susie continued to judge competitive gymnastics, a role she served for more than 20 years.
Coaching a high school gymnastics team, though? That idea was never really on her radar until her oldest daughter, Savannah, saw her gym close a few years ago. Susie came up with a detailed plan and approached Fishers athletic director Jim Brown about starting a gymnastics team at the high school.
“My mom used to call me stubborn,” Susie said with a smile. “I call myself persistent. I think there’s a little bit of a difference — but I’m a little stubborn. … I kind of went proposed the plan of, ‘Can we do this? How can we make this happen? What do I need to do to make it happen?’”
It started as just mother and daughter. Susie coaching and Savannah competing as an individual for the Fishers gymnastics “team.” But through Susie’s diligence — coaching, fundraising and juggling her time working with the elderly as a physical therapist — the Fishers team grew into a “real” team with six gymnasts last fall. Susie, recognized as the 2022 IndyStar Mother’s Day “Sports Mom of the Year”, is not in it for the credit. In fact, she lobbied for other mothers and deflected praise to her team, the school and her assistant, Taylor Muskar.
But her daughter, Savannah, is especially grateful for the time spent with her mother — and coach — during her high school years. She nominated her mom, writing she is her “No. 1 supporter,” and is brought to tears when asked what she means to her.
“She does a lot,” Savannah said. “I don’t think she gets enough credit for it. She has all of these different things she does to help in the community and (coaching) is one of the big things she’s done. The way the past two years have gone … we are pretty close.”
Ashlee Scarlett figured her competitive gymnastics career was probably over. She had competed in competitive club gymnastics for 10 years and had dabbled in coaching younger gymnasts herself. She found about the Fishers team through an Instagram post and Muskar, who had previously coached her for two years.
“That sounds fun,” Scarlett said of her reaction. “And it was fun. The meets were fun and hanging out with the girls on the side was a lot of fun.”
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The six members of the team did not really know one another before the start of the season. But by the end, the Tigers were competitive and finished third as a team in the sectional at Lafayette Jeff. Gianna Dewald was sixth on the all-round individual scores and Fishers teammate Megan Jerrell was seventh. Savannah was 13th on the all-round score.
“We got along so well,” Scarlett said. “Savannah was so funny. If I would walk into practice not feeling the best, she would put a big smile on my face. She was so fun to be around and she was that person you could go to if you needed anything. She’s like her mother. She’s so sweet and caring.”
Gymnastics has been around as an Indiana High School Athletic Association sport since 1973. But the sport, at least as a school sport, has been in decline in the number of schools participating (there were 78 that competed in the sectional this year) and the overall number of participants (down roughly 50% in Indiana over a 20-year period, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations).
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But that does not mean the sport is not popular. It is. Savannah and others on the Fishers team all competed from a young age in club gymnastics. It can be almost like a full-time job for gymnasts who put in 20-plus hours per week. Some of the girls who ended up on the Fishers team had “retired” from competitive gymnastics.
“We use the word ‘retire’ because it’s more like you give up the sport to go on to other things,” Susie said. “But maybe they still want to do gymnastics and still love the sport. At some point, some kids are like, ‘Enough, I don’t want to do 12 hours, 16 hours, 20 hours or more a week.’ We don’t like to use the word ‘quit’ because the things you gain from the sport like the dedication, the time commitment, being able to work on this together as a team, those are all skills that you can learn as you get older in life because you spend so much time, effort and dedication being on the team.”
Savannah practices roughly 12 hours per week at DeVeau’s School of Gymnastics in Fishers, but also is a pole vaulter on the Fishers track and field team, plays trombone and is active in 4-H. She has a lot on her plate as a 17-year-old. Shawn and Susie’s younger daughter, seventh-grader Sydney Strange, is similarly busy with her interests in music, theater, dance and gymnastics.
“I tell (my daughters) I don’t want them to be the smartest kid in the class, I don’t want them to be the best athlete, but I want them to be the best they can be,” said Susie, who grew up in Marion. “I think in today’s world, they need to be well-rounded. Not just be smart, not just be good at something, but to have those character traits that mean more — like having a work ethic and being kind and working through things and being there for people. Just being kind. There’s not enough of that in this world.”
And maybe sports, in a small way through gymnastics and through a school team at Fishers, can be a vessel to spread that kindness.
Brown, the athletic director at Fishers, could not offer Susie much when she said she wanted to start a team. He offered support, though, and the green light to get started.
Gymnastics is an expensive sport due to required equipment like a vault and balance beam. Gym space is also valuable. The Fishers team practiced off site at DeVeau’s and Wright’s Gymnastics in Noblesville, but came together more quickly than Susie ever imagined.
“It was amazing with the limited space we had for practices, how much bonding they did,” Susie said. “Our practices were only an hour-and-a-half long. Not long at all and just a few times a week. But we met outside for different team-building things and this group of girls — I don’t think they’ll ever not talk to each other. I don’t think any of them really knew each other beforehand. Seeing the girls come back from retiring and accomplishing the things they did in a short amount of time was invigorating for me … there were a lot of firsts and overcoming challenges.”
The team was mostly built through word of mouth. When friends found out Savannah was participating, they asked, “Oh, we have a team?” she said. Going into the 2021-22 school year, Susie and Savannah made a push through distributing flyers and social media to generate interest.
“I think a lot of people think you have to have a lot of skills in order to be on the team,” Scarlett said. “But you don’t. It’s different than levels (competitive gymnasts progress in levels from 1 through 10). I think if people find out how much fun it was for seniors like me and Gianna, I think they’ll keep doing it. They should keep doing it.”
Susie said she plans to continue coaching the program next year and potentially into the future.
“I like giving back and hopefully this will start something that will grow and have a future and get others to love the sport and give them opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said.
The mother and daughter time with Savannah has also been special for Susie. Every so often, she has to remind herself to take off the “coach hat” — or Savannah will remind her.
“They get older, get their license and flee the nest a little more,” Susie said. “So getting to know her friends, who she hangs out with, he thought process prior to exiting home for college — that has been a great benefit.”
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.