Gym honors past and serves present

HC boys and girls gymnastics have new home that pays tribute to program history

As a young gymnastics coach at Hinsdale Central, Neil Krupicka would sit in on early morning swim practices, hoping to pick up some tips from veteran coach Don Watson. He knew Watson wanted a new pool for the program.

"I thought, 'This would be a nice gymnastics gym when you move,' " Krupicka recalled. "Sixty years later it happened."

Hinsdale Central will host a grand opening of the new gymnastics gym, which bears Krupicka's name, at an open house from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday April 15.

While Krupicka had the idea for a new gymnastics gym decades ago, the opportunity didn't arise until a couple of years ago when he was back at Central for Homecoming. He took a tour of the new natatorium and learned the old pool space would be filled in. He said he was talking with Carol Bobo about the Hinsdale Central Foundation's involvement with the pool project

"She turned to me. She goes, 'Now it's your turn,' " he recalled.

So, with the help of the foundation, he began reaching out to alumni.

"It was such a great response that we just took off with it," he said, estimating the campaign raised $120,000 to $130,000.

Bobo said foundation leaders decided before the pool was built they would serve as the conduit for donations. They were happy to do so for the gymnastics gym and hope to do so again in the future.

"There's been a lot of support for what's been done," she said. "I hope that other groups will do that as well."

The foundation is always looking for opportunities to work with the community to provide more opportunities for kids, Bobo said.

"Every kid in a high school setting needs to find their niche," she said.

That's just what gymnastics provided for brothers Jim and Dave Hamman, 1979 and 1983 graduates of Central who both competed on the boys gymnastics team all four years. The two business partners were happy to make a donation to the campaign.

"In a big school like Hinsdale Central, you can get lost pretty easy," Jim Hamman said. "It gave us a sense of pride and importance and built character, and we just felt we wanted to do this to help Neil out."

Krupicka worked the gymnasts hard, Hamman said, but had a positive influence on their lives.

"Going through that, we made lifelong friends. Dave and I both had several gymnasts stand up in our weddings. We still take fishing trips together every summer or every other summer," he said.

Another donor and former Central gymnast is Krupicka's daughter, Erica Conger, who graduated in 1999, and now lives in San Diego. She said she's enjoyed watching her father work to make his dream come true.

"For so many years he had always thought and dreamt of having the gymnastics gym set up the way he thought it should have been," Conger said. "It's been amazing to watch. I think he's left no stone unturned. He's thought of everything to make this the best it could possibly be."

She and husband Ryan didn't have to think twice about offering their financial support to the project.

"For us, just knowing how much he was dedicated to making this happen, the donation was a no-brainer. It was something we were happy and excited to do and be part of."

Celebrating the legacy

The new gym is designed to honor the history of the boys and girls programs at Central, and Conger said her father had saved every score from every meet from every team he's ever coached.

"It's all in my garage," she said with a laugh.

It fell to Central assistant girls gymnastics coach Myles Laffey to verify that information.

"I was more of a workman, double-checking - and we still have corrections to make - years and years of records," he said. "Neil was really specific about wanting to find those people who were never champions but were state finalists."

The old gymnastics gym also paid homage to program history, but it was too small to host competitions. So coaches and athletes would move the equipment to the main gym or the field house for meets, then move it back afterward. Few people had the chance to see it.

"Certainly coaches from opposing teams always brought them down to the museum, so to speak," said Laffey, who competed for Central as a pommel horse specialist from 1980-84. "I think my own parents when I went through the program, they were never in the gym. They were never immersed in it the way the athletes themselves were."

Now that has all changed for spectators.

"They turn their backs to leave and there are a bunch of champions staring them in the face. It's just a nice addition to our legacy," Laffey said.

Mark Wanner, who coached the boys team to three state titles and multiple trophies before retiring in 2018, said it was fun watching the girls team, of which he was an assistant coach this year, compete in the new space this year.

"It was a lot of fun for the gymnasts and the coaches because when the meet ended, we didn't have to move equipment down the hallway," Wanner said.

Wanner's efforts on the new gym have focused on the artwork that decorates the walls. He worked with the same company that designed the pool to create a large mural that depicts decades worth of history.

"We've been working on this for a while, so it's really cool to see it all come together and just not move into the gym - now you move into the gym with all this tradition and history and it's kind of cool. It's a lot cleaner and more exciting now."

A community effort

Those involved praised the way so many different groups worked together on the project, including athletic director Dan Jones.

"It was just great to see the community and the alumni and staff come together and get this done," Jones said. "I'm really happy to be a small part of that and really looking forward to the celebration and the grand opening of the facility."

Conger is looking forward to seeing what she described as the "cherry on top" of her dad's career.

"To have all those people come and support him and see that all come together in one place, one moment, one time for him is going to be amazing."

Her kids - daughter, Edie, 7 (also a gymnast), and son, Ben, 6 - are excited, too, are counting down the days to the open house.

"My kids are ecstatic because they just love their Pop Pop so much and he's such a good grandpa to them," she said.

Krupicka, who now lives in Palm Springs, Calif., said he too is looking forward to the event.

"A lot of people are coming from all over," he said. "It's going to be kind of like a reunion. I'm looking forward to see them see their legacy and the work that they put into the past is now appropriately recognized and on display."

He said his favorite part of the new gym is the Harrison Bull "Gallery of Champions," named after a former assistant coach.

"It's amazing with all the big murals and the banners," he said.

Krupicka is also touched that his family's legacy is captured in a plaque at the gym's entrance. His wife, Cindy, also a Central graduate, ran the age-group program for years. Conger's siblings, Adam (Class of 1997) and Lindsey (Class of 2002) also participated in the age-group program and the high school program. Lindsey and Erica were MVPs and All-Americans.

"I'm very honored and humbled to have had our name put on the entryway there, the Krupicka family name, and I really appreciate the school board and everyone who did that," he said. "We're really honored to have that. Cindy, Adam, Erica and Lindsey, the whole family, it's been a major part of our life since 1967 - 1963, actually, when I was a freshman.

"It's been great," he added. "I just love the program and the kids are amazing and really it's been a pleasure being able to be part of that whole thing."

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean