As principals go, Caren Swickard is in tune with gymnastics more than most.
Years before she occupied the big chair at Portage High School, she coached gymnastics at the school.
Prior to coaching, she was a gymnast for the Indians.
"Gymnastics is special," Swickard said, looking over a yearbook from one of her Portage teams. "It was a big part of my life. I loved it. I still have a lot of fond memories."
Portage is making its first team trip to the state finals since 1975 on Saturday and Swickard will be making the trek to Ball State to support the Indians.
"I'm so excited for the girls," she said. "They're very nice kids. They let me announce at their meets. I keep score. Karen (Barcelli)'s an amazing coach. She's doing an outstanding job. They deserve this. They've worked very hard. They've reached a goal I was never able to do. The one thing I regret is never being able to take a team to state. I'm riding their coattails."
Swickard remembers the 1991 Merrillville Regional like it was yesterday. The Indians had been ranked No. 1 in the state for several weeks, having beaten Valparaiso in their dual. They opened the regional with disastrous results on balance beam and state hopes were quickly dashed.
Julie Witka, Rebekah Brajcki and Katie Shurman all qualified for state in the all-around. Witka won balance beam, Swickard's only champion as a coach, and the trio's combined score topped two of the four teams at Perry Meridian. It wasn't until about 10 years later that the field was expanded to eight, giving each regional two qualifying spots.
"We had three all-arounders, just like they do now," Swickard said. "We really thought that was our year. I remember standing with the girls at the state meet and (sister) Kelly (Bermes) saying, 'We should've been here as a team.'"
Swickard graduated from Portage in 1972, a year before the IHSAA adopted gymnastics as a sport. As a senior, she competed in districts at Munster, placing fourth in tumbling and sixth in trampoline, events that eventually were discontinued.
"We didn't have private lessons," Swickard said. "(Gymnastics) was just something where if you were athletic, you tried it."
Floor exercise was done on the hardwood gym floor. In 1982, her first year as a coach, Swickard recalled convincing the Portage athletic director to let them purchase a tumbling mat at a workshop. Around 1990, a group of parents helped put in a spring floor that opened up a whole new range of skills for gymnasts.
After competing for Valparaiso University, Swickard returned to Portage as an assistant to Bev Reynolds, then became head coach at VU, where she took a team to nationals.
Swickard eventually traded places with Reynolds, who coached Portage to a runner-up finish in the first state meet and the title in 1975 behind vault champion Toni Yudt and Sheryl Cook. Bermes was a Beginner level gymnast on the team.
"Those were fun days," Swickard said."I miss the relationship with the kids, being there. Those (girls) are lifelong friends. We keep in touch. What's nice is they all have little kids in it now."
Swickard's advice to Barcelli is short and simple.
"I told her you need to enjoy it."
This column represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.