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Local coach recalls lifetime of inspiring valley youths

You might be impressed when Jan VanTuyl tells you he’s been teaching in the Clark County School District for 40 years, but that pales in comparison to the 60 years he’s been coaching overall.

His career began while he was in the U.S. Air Force when he coached basketball and weightlifting. He followed the Air Force with a stint in the Army, serving 11 years between the two. After his discharge, he attended New Mexico State University, where his job in the school bookstore changed his life and ultimately the lives of generations of young Nevadans.

"I was always looking for things to keep me in shape or get me in shape," VanTuyl said. "One of the kids in the bookstore was a gymnast, and he took me over to show me what he was doing. It looked good to me, so I tried out for the team in 1960."

There are six events in men’s gymnastics: floor exercise, pommel horse, high bar, parallel bar, vault and rings. VanTuyl competed in all of them, in addition to rope climbing.

He attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas — because his wife was from here — to get his bachelor’s degree. He worked as a coach at the Henderson Recreation Center, and it was there that he started training four girls in gymnastics, forming what would become the first competitive gymnastics team in the valley, the Fittettes.

Members of the Fittettes and the group it later evolved into, the Comets, had a reunion in September at former team member Jane Kravenko MacDonald’s Centennial Hills home. The women and their families wanted to get together and reminisce, but a large part of the impetus for the gathering was a desire to see their former coach and honor him.

"The other coaches on the team were excellent, but coach VanTuyl dedicated his entire life to us," said former Fittette Jan Drake, who began her training with VanTuyl in 1965. "That’s what made both teams successful."

Drake had to drop out of gymnastics when she grew too tall for the sport and started literally breaking the bars. She segued into dance in college and became a showgirl, performing in nine different productions on the Strip, including "Lido de Paris," "Jubilee" and "Hello Hollywood Hello."

Her friend and former teammate, Diana Carrell, took a drastically different route following gymnastics. She joined the Army and became a nurse. She also taught swimming, aerobics and gymnastics at the YMCA and taught gymnastics for the Special Olympics, too. She also praised VanTuyl’s unrelenting dedication and lessons.

"I can still do my splits," she said. "We learned discipline. You carry that forever. Gymnastics is tough, especially back then. We didn’t have any mats; we were on a gym floor. All of our floor exercises were done on a hardwood basketball court floor."

A clear floor was even a luxury in the early days of the teams. When they started, they didn’t have a regular place to practice and moved from location to location, hauling all of their heavy equipment in a truck. When they finally did get a warehouse of their own as a permanent practice gym, they had to knock down a wall to make it big enough, but that still left a support post in the middle.

"We were the only gymnastics team in the country that had a big pole we had to work around for the floor routines," VanTuyl said. "Still, it was good."

The women noted that the coach insisted that members study all the disciplines of gymnastics, not just their favorites. For Pam Horton (nee Gadbaw), that proved to be particularly difficult. She has been deaf in one ear since she was 18 months old, which adversely affects balance. It took her three months just to be able to walk across the balance beam, but VanTuyl drove her to stick it out.

"I competed in the four events women do: side horse vault, uneven bars, floor exercise and balance beam," Horton said. "I was best at side horse vault. I was state champion for a couple of years."

Carrell and Drake were champions, too, and competed in the 1968 Junior Olympics in Knoxville, Tenn. Drake took 10th place in the country, a feat she modestly stated as "the team took 10th place" before naming another dozen or so champions trained by VanTuyl.

VanTuyl can name a few of his charges who went on to college competition, but it’s clear that carving kids into professional athletes wasn’t his goal.

"I believe that if you only teach a kid the sport you coach, you’re not a coach," VanTuyl said. "You have to relate it to life and other things where they can carry the discipline, training and hard work out to their lives and make it pay off for them out there."

VanTuyl retired from teaching in 2001. He enjoyed the first two years of his retirement, sleeping in, playing golf when he wanted to and working through a long "honey do" list. After two years, he found himself missing something.

He started volunteering, teaching reading to elementary school kids. That led to substitute teaching, and four years after he retired, he was asked to come back to teaching full time, which he does now at Desert Pines High School.

He’s back to coaching. This time it’s tennis, and once again, he’s building the program from the ground up.

"I’ve been blessed with good health, good kids, tremendous parents and great coaching staff," VanTuyl said. "The success of the kids in their lives means that they took something very valuable from the program. I’m happy to be a part of that."

Contact Sunrise/Whitney View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at ataylor@viewnews.com or 380-4532.

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