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'All-Around' Eklund departs Worthington after 22-year run

WORTHINGTON -- When Shelly Eklund began coaching gymnastics in Worthington in 1986, Ronald Reagan was the U.S. president, "The Cosby Show" and "Family Ties" were on most Americans' weekly T.V. schedules, "Out of Africa" won the Academy Award for best picture and Nadia Comaneci's golden "10" at the 1976 summer Olympics was still fresh in the minds of aspiring gymnasts everywhere.

The world looks very different today, and Worthington's sports scene will be permanently altered, as well, when Eklund moves later this summer to begin a new phase in her career as a teacher and coach at Eagan High School.

"Before I came here, there had been nine gymnastics coaches in the previous 10 years, so they were looking for some stability in the program," recalled Eklund. "Honestly, that was my plan, too -- to be here for a year or two, get some experience and move back to the Twin Cities.

"But the reason I've been in Worthington for 22 years is there were always kids who started gymnastics when they were 4 or 5 that I wanted to see blossom, grow and graduate--they've been why I've stayed here for so long."

Eklund was a greenhorn in 1986, a native of Circle Pines who had recently earned her bachelor's degree in K-12 physical education and health at Gustavus Adolphus College.

She will leave town as a respected teacher and coach; five years ago, Eklund was inducted to the Minnesota Girls Gymnastics Coaches' Association Hall of Fame. Not surprisingly, her skills are in demand.

"I didn't think this particular situation would necessarily work out, but when someone from Eagan suggested I look into the position, there was a teaching job to go with the coaching and everything seemed to fall into place," explained Eklund.

"My house sold quickly, and I took all of that as definitely a sign from God that this was what needs to be happening for me, although it is probably the hardest decision I've ever made in my life."

During Eklund's storied tenure, the Worthington gymnastics team qualified for state competition six times, initially in 1992. In the early 1990s, Wendy Roth was the first of the Eklund-trained athletes to qualify for state gymnastics competition as an individual, and thereafter, at least one Worthington gymnast per year has made it to state.

"I actually started coaching gymnastics in a summer recreation program when I was in high school," detailed Eklund. "I have a deep passion for gymnastics, and when I couldn't do it anymore, I transferred my love of the sport to helping other kids learn it and grow to love it as I do."

Eklund was active in gymnastics during her high school years in Circle Pines, but in the school's AA conference, neither she nor her team qualified for state competition. College, however, was a different story; during her four years at Gustavus, Eklund's team won the national collegiate competition three times.

"I competed in all-around," said Eklund. "My favorite was the balance beam because it was so challenging; my least favorite was the bars."

While teaching physical education and health at Worthington High School and serving as head gymnastics coach, Eklund always made time to lead the local Community Education gymnastics program.

She continues in the latter role through late July, introducing boys and girls as young as three to the joys and techniques associated with bars, beam, vault and tumbling.

"The Community Education classes make an outstanding feeder program for the high school team," affirmed Eklund.

Another major factor in Eklund's decision to move to the Twin Cities at this time is her young daughter. Eklund adopted Jaeleigh from China in September 2006, when she was 11 months old.

"Having a child turns your life around, especially when you've been independently single for 20 years," expressed Eklund. "She is amazing, and I love motherhood, but it's a 180-degree difference, and your priorities have to change.

"I used to work 99 percent of the time and give everything I had to my job and my gymnasts, but now Jaeleigh is number one in my life," continued Eklund. "The best thing that's happened to me is having this little person in my life."

With her parents and sister still living in Circle Pines, one brother in Mahtomedi and the other in Maple Grove, Eklund is excited that she and Jaeleigh will soon be only about 30 miles from her entire family.

"As much as I'd love to stay and watch all these kids grow in gymnastics and life, it's really important for me to have Jaeleigh close to family so she can get to know her grandparents and cousins and be a part of their lives," said Eklund.

Nevertheless, leaving Worthington and her life here is not easy for Eklund.

"Worthington is an awesome hometown community," affirmed Eklund. "I like the slower pace of Worthington, and that I can go to Wal-Mart and have 20 different people greet me. I'll miss my house and its beautiful view of the lake, all the support the community has given me over the years, and the great support group I've had here since Jaeleigh came into my life -- it's been outstanding."

One of the people Eklund will never fail to appreciate is Roger Geertsema, the longtime Daily Globe sports reporter who faithfully covered the Worthington gymnastics team for the bulk of Eklund's tenure.

"Roger is definitely our team's number one fan, and he's one of the people I'm going to miss greatly," shared Eklund. "I told him he was going to have to step in and lead the team for me, and that he'll have to help keep the new coach in line."

Indeed, District 518 is in the process of hiring a new gymnastics coach to replace Eklund, but her influence will not be soon forgotten.

For instance, gymnast Christina Sorensen, who was coached by Eklund for about 12 years and advanced to state competition five times, just wrapped up her sophomore year at Eklund's alma mater, Gustavus. Sorensen is participating successfully in collegiate gymnastics there, hoping to continue competing into her junior year and beyond.

"Shelly is inspirational and really motivates kids," credited Sorensen's mother, Maureen. "Even though gymnastics can be a sport that focuses on the individual, Shelly always made everyone on the team feel they had an important role to play, and it is her team-building ability that enabled her to take so many teams to the state meet."

Eklund guarantees that, even as she leads a new team in Eagan, she will always secretly be rooting hardest for Worthington's gymnasts.

Offered Eklund, "Worthington will always be a huge part of my life and heart."