Blue Jay Gymnastics ‘got it right’, paved the way for others – Jamestown Sun
JAMESTOWN — Rumors of social change echoed through the halls of Jamestown High School in the late 1960s.
“When I started middle school, the only sports available to girls that I remember were track and field and gymnastics,” Barb (Mitchell) Bjorum said. “The only one that was school sanctioned was track. The gymnastics team was under the AAU and it only became school sanctioned when I was a junior.
“I remember a lot of girls wanted to play volleyball and basketball. We were very aware that the boys played more sports than us,” she said. “We talked about how it was unfair that girls didn’t get as many opportunities to compete on a team as boys.”
Bjorum, a former Blue Jays gymnast and Jamestown High School Athletics Hall of Fame inductee, recalled life before Title IX was implemented in 1972.
Title IX specifies:
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of gender, be excluded from participation, denied benefits, or discriminated against in connection with any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
The change in terms of women’s athletics was just one of the far-reaching effects of the bill.
Title IX will turn 50 on Thursday.
“(Head Coach Delores) Paulson worked for so many years to establish the reputation of the gymnastics team,” Bjorum said. “She was instrumental in having schools sanction gymnastics.”
1969 marked the first year the North Dakota High School Activities Association recognized gymnastics as a school-sanctioned sport. More than 180 girls attended the meet sponsored by the North Dakota High School Activities Association.
“It was very prestigious to be in gymnastics because the team was good,” Bjorum said. “We were sort of a united force and we wanted to do gymnastics because the team was successful.
“We convinced our friends to do gymnastics because then we could hang out with everyone. A lot of us were sort of from the same group. I remember we all got along really well.”
Bjorum said the Jays gymnastics team still had about 30 people on the roster 50 years ago.
Before the 1969 season, the Jays competed under AAU gymnastics, where they won three unsanctioned state titles. The Jays went on to win back-to-back NDHSAA-sanctioned state titles during Bjorum’s junior and senior years.
“We had the advantage of starting at the top when I joined gymnastics,” Bjorum said. “This team was already winning the state.”
Bjorum only joined the gymnastics team in the eighth grade.
“I had Paulson as a seventh-grade PE teacher and I was walking through a park babysitting one day and she was demonstrating something to the group of varsity team members who were practicing,” Bjorum said.
“She saw me and she said ‘Barbie, come here.’ I was tiny – probably 80 pounds and light enough for her to hold – and she used me to demonstrate the skill After that she told me to come back the next day and that’s how I got myself involved.
What Bjorum soon realized she had signed up for was year-round training for the next five years.
“When I started, the standard was already very high,” Bjorum said. “If you were going to be on the gymnastics team, you worked as hard as you could. We put in tons and tons of hours.
“We trained all year – a lot of sports didn’t.”
It wasn’t just the Jays’ opponents who recognized the skill and athleticism the Blue Jays brought to the table. News of the team’s success was spread throughout the school.
“To be honest — the boys who were doing sports back then — didn’t have the state championships that the gymnastics team had on a regular basis,” Bjorum said. “When I was in high school, I remember the gymnasium was full of people staring at us because we were good and fun to watch.”
“Good” doesn’t quite reflect the dominance of the imitated Blue Jay gym program when President Nixon was in the Oval Office.
In the inaugural state-sanctioned meeting in 1969, the Blue Jays scored 197.9 collective points for a comfortable lead over second-placed Bismarck St. Mary’s 135.3 points.
The Jamestown gymnasts won two of the three individual all-around titles. Valerie Boatright won the Intermediate Division crown while Bjorum easily won the Junior Division crown.
Bjorum said the Beginner, Intermediate and Junior divisions were previously in place under AAU rules. The NDHSAA has since dropped the categorization.
In individual events, Jamestown achieved 11 firsts, including five of six in the Junior division.
JHS landed four of the top six in the intermediate activity and managed to claim the top six on bars and vault in the 1969 competition.
Bjorum placed second on bars, first on vault and first on floor exercise in the junior division. The future Hall of Famer was tied for third on balance beam.
Boatright won the intermediate beam and vault and was fourth on uneven bars in the junior division. She finished fifth in the junior floor exercise. Jamestown was competing without four top-ranked gymnasts due to injury or illness.
The 1969 Blue Jay gymnastics team became the second team ever inducted into the Jamestown High School Hall of Fame last October. The standout group of gymnasts joined the Blue Jay girls’ basketball team in 1974. As of summer 2022, no men’s team has been inducted into the JHS Hall of Fame.
While Bjorum and her teammates were just children themselves, they had the opportunity – just as the 1974 women’s basketball team did five years later – to be role models and trendsetters for the next generation of female athletes.
“When we were on the varsity team, every summer we taught little kids 4 and up,” Bjorum said. “I think gymnastics was one of the first groups to do this.
“When Delores Paulson was starting gymnastics in the state, there were many times when on a Saturday she would take what we called ‘the traveling team’ and we would go and do the workshop in New Rockford and teach other high school kids move in gymnastics. She was pretty progressive that way.
Since the first sanctioned gymnastics meet 53 years ago, Bjorum said she was delighted to see significant progress being made in terms of leveling the playing field and providing the same number of opportunities and recognition for female and male athletes.
“When I was coaching gymnastics in Valley City, we shared a gym with the wrestling team and sometimes we did conditioning together,” Bjorum said. “I was surprised how many boys said ‘oh my God, this is so hard.’ I think they recognized that they were trying to do what we were doing and it wasn’t easy.
“It was a slow process but (women’s athletics) got recognition. I think the trailblazers got it right. They knew what to focus on and they knew what they wanted to do. They wanted to be the best possible.”