'Pappy' shares experiences as gymnast and coach

Floor mats have gotten thicker; the vault is no longer a "horse;" the bars have widened apart and gymnasts have gotten a little taller. Gymnastics has certainly changed, but through it all, Don "Pappy" Papreck hasn't lost his passion for helping ...

Floor mats have gotten thicker; the vault is no longer a "horse;" the bars have widened apart and gymnasts have gotten a little taller.

Gymnastics has certainly changed, but through it all, Don "Pappy" Papreck hasn't lost his passion for helping gymnasts become better athletes.

Coaching and participating in gymnastics are what he spent most of his life doing.

Papreck teaches level 5 classes and above at the Gym Bin, located on the south side of Bemidji. He has worked there for more than 20 years.

Papreck competed in high school gymnastics from 1964-1967 in Northbrook, Ill., and then in college at Bemidji State University from 1967-1971. He earned the right to compete in NAIA Nationals for four years.


He started coaching as an assistant coach for boys' gymnastics at Grand Rapids, Minn., for two seasons. Papreck was head gymnastics coach at BSU from 1973-1975. He worked with the recreational gymnastics program from 1977-1987, and coached the BSU women's gymnastics team from 1982-1983.

Papreck has been a coach at the Gym Bin ever since it opened in 1987. He has also spent the last 16 years on the high school coaching staff at Bemidji High School (11 years as head coach). BHS gymnasts practice and compete at the Gym Bin.

He was inducted into the Minnesota Gymnastics Hall of Fame Jan. 23.

Horses to tables

Papreck's job as head coach is ever-changing. Each gymnast who walks through the doors is different, both physically and mentally. Equipment has also made significant changes since he was a competitor.

He recalls his first experience competing at college in the early 1970s in floor exercise.

"We did tumbling on old, beat-up horse-hair mats," Papreck said. "When we did the floor exercise, it was just done on the bare floor."

Papreck said the girls would put streamers on the floor to mark the boundary lines. Eventually, the gym put in a quarter-inch-thick mat with the consistency of wrestling mats.


"On the floor now, you have a platform with springs under it, matting on top and carpet on that," Papreck said. "It's a real forgiving surface - you can get way high up in the air. But the higher you get up the harder you come down."

Interestingly, the onset of new equipment has brought new types of injuries. The most common injuries affect ankles and wrists, but Papreck said gymnasts can jump higher than ever on the floor, making for harder landings.

"Occasionally now you find more knee injuries because kids are doing more high-level skills," Papreck said. "They're twisting when they're landing. You have to finish that twist before you land."

At one time, a girl could hang on the high uneven parallel bars and her hips would hit the low bar when she'd swing through the bottom, Papreck said.

"(Gymnasts) were always stuffing sponges in their leotards to keep from getting bruises on their hips," Papreck said. "You had to hit in exactly the right place. When you go to a meet, you'd spend a lot of time measuring distance on the bars to match the girl's height."

Today, the vault no longer looks like the "horse" it once was. It is now an apparatus called the vault table, a slightly-inclined, metal piece of equipment with a padded and springy covering.

Papreck said when he competed in gymnastics, gymnasts had to cope with no runway and a plywood ramp.

"We didn't have a vault runway. When I competed, I started at vaulting horse and paced off steps and said, 'OK this is where I run from,'" Papreck said. "The boards didn't have real springs in them. They were warped plywood. It didn't' have a lot of give. You saw a lot more shin splints then."


Miles apart

When Papreck started coaching at the Gym Bin, the founding group was very interested in competition at the USA Gymnastics club level. Unfortunately, the closest places were the Twin Cities and Duluth.

Gymnastics clubs and high school teams were few and far between.

"When I first came up here as a gymnast in college, we could go to Superior and St. Cloud, and everything else was too far away after that," Papreck said. "We travel a lot more now."

Papreck estimates the high school gymnastics team has traveled more than 1,800 miles so far this season for high school meets.

"Park Rapids is the closest team, and it's still 50 miles away," Papreck said.

Today the Gym Bin club program travels to Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D., the Twin Cities and Duluth for competitions.

BHS travels to Park Rapids, Detroit Lakes, Perham, St. Cloud, Albertville, Fargo, Fergus Falls and Alexandria.



To Papreck, gymnastics is more about perfecting the art of flips or jumps.

"It's a really great activity for kids," he said. "They have fun. The kids who come out of our program usually do well in other activities because of their spatial orientation. They just have an awareness of where they are in space."

There is no end to challenges, he said. These days he finds himself constantly trying to learn new ways of teaching new skills.

"As I get older, my hands start to get sore. I have to think, 'OK, now how can I do this without having to spot so much?'"

It may not be in the job description, but gymnastics coaches need to know little bit about physics.

"You kind of learn physics by doing this stuff," Papreck said. "The kids in it, their bodies become experiments in physics form. You learn about flight and you learn about landings."

As head coach of both the high school teams and some of the Gym Bin club teams, Papreck has coached some kids from when they were 3 years old all the way until they graduate from high school.


"I feel like I keep learning every year," he said. "There's something you find a better way of doing especially as the equipment has changed. Other coaches in other sports or teachers only get to see the kid one year. These kids are kind of friends throughout a lifetime."

Moving forward

Papreck said his high school team is scoring higher this year than last year.

High school student Rachel Bell is again the high school varsity team's top scorer and is the team leader on balance beam.

In overcoming what he feels is the biggest misconception about gymnastics, Papreck said he is not one of those coaches who steal kids' youth by demanding too much from them at a young age.

"I'm not that controlling," he said. "I actually coach pretty loosely. I watch for a while and if I have a suggestion, I make it.

"One of our best gymnasts was Shelly Kringen. She competed through Level 10 in the USAG and had a full ride scholarship to Iowa State University. I was there a lot for her when she was real little, and as she grew, she did a lot of complicated skills. When she came back to help out, I'd get out of her way and she'd make me look like a good coach," Papreck said.

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