He and his wife, Paulette, plan to move to Boise, Idaho, to be close to their youngest daughter and two grandchildren.
Basketball was going to be Jerry Penney’s sport. As he looked forward to Renton High School’s fall tryouts in 1958, his sophomore year, Penney was sure of it.
“When I went to turn out, I had pretty much won the state tournament for them, in my head,” he recalled with a bemused smile. “I was a star in my own mind.
“So we were all lined up in the gym and the coach, Irv Leifer, would bring out five at a time and he would assess their skills. My time came, and I was out there holding the ball, looking for someone to pass to, and dang, suddenly the ball is gone. The guy in front of me stole it from me. I thought, ‘That was pretty unkind.’
Jerry Penney file
Sammamish gymnastics coach, 47 years
USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame (2011)
WIAA Hall of Fame (2010)
Washington Coaches Hall of Fame (2001)
Three-time state gymnastics coach of the year
State meet director, 19 years
Final home meet and recognition ceremony: Thursday, 7 p.m., Sammamish High
“Irv was a big fan of keeping your hands up on defense,” he said, “so I ran to the other end, and I was holding my hands up, guarding everybody that’s got the ball, doing my job.”
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Leifer, a state Hall of Fame coach, whistled play to a stop. “Irv walked over, I was sure, to compliment me and tell me what a good job I had done,” Penney said. “He put his hand on my shoulder and we walked to the end of the line, close to the door.
“He told me, ‘I want to thank you for turning out, but you know, you might want to go see Al Armstrong down in the gymnastics room. He really likes guys your height.’ So he opened the door and, phffft, out I went. Tryouts were four days long, and I had only been there for 20 minutes. But it worked out.”
Did it ever.
That was the day that launched Penney’s lifelong association with gymnastics, a journey that, over time, established him as this state’s chief pillar for an underappreciated high-school sport.
So many lives touched
After 47 years as gymnastics coach at Sammamish High School in Bellevue, including a boys program that ran from 1970 until the end of boys programs statewide in the early ’80s, Penney is, with some reluctance, retiring at age 73. He and his wife, Paulette, plan to move to Boise, Idaho, to be close to their youngest daughter and two grandchildren.
“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Jenny Genoway, who was first coached by Penney at age 11 in junior high and is in her 23rd year at Sammamish as his assistant. “I’ve offered to bribe his wife so he won’t retire. I’ve told them both, ‘You can’t do this to me.’ We’re really going to miss JP.”
While the Washington Interscholastic Activities Associaton maintains no records for coaching longevity, Penney’s one-coach/one-school/one-sport streak is remarkable.
Ed Pepple, for comparison, coached boys basketball at Mercer Island for 42 years.
6 gymnasts to watch
Alli McManus and Paige Hirata, Woodinville: The seniors give the Falcons a formidable one-two punch. McManus placed second in last season’s state 4A all-around, Hirata third. McManus won second-place medals in three state individual-event finals and took first on floor. Hirata was in the top 5 in three events.
Kayla Porter, Auburn Mountainview: As a sophomore two years ago, Porter missed winning the state 3A/2A all-around title by a fraction. Last season she battled through a leg injury suffered days before the state meet to finish fourth. The two-time state beam champ aims to finally finish first in AA as a senior.
Ali Tate, Auburn: Tate was last season’s 3A/2A all-around champion in her first year of high-school competition. A junior, Tate has trained as a club gymnast for 12 years.
Elena Fowler, Holy Names: Recognized for her advanced skills on vault, Fowler has the tools to compete for the all-around crown. She finished second to Tate in the all-around by a narrow margin (37.225-37.175) last season. The senior is a two-time state 3A/2A vault champion.
Kim Kramers, Inglemoor: A level-9 performer in club, Kramers is making her high-school debut as a junior and has placed first in all-around in her first two meets.
Penney’s influence on the sport extends beyond Sammamish. He has served as the state-meet director for 19 years, many hosted at the Sammamish gym. The state meet in February at the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall will be his 13th as floor director.
“Jerry is the backbone of the tournament and the person you can always depend upon to get his job done,” says Dean Ratliff, the technical director of the state meet.
5 teams to watch
Woodinville: The Falcons graduated just one impact senior from a lineup that last year set an all-time state high score (187.375) while winning a third straight Class 4A title. Another win would give WHS its second gymnastics fourpeat in school history (the first: 2007-10).
Bothell: The youthful Cougars (no seniors, just two juniors) fared well (171.55 points) in an early-season showdown last week with Woodinville (175.9). Two sophomores, Erin Clayton and Saiyann Reyes, qualified for state individually last year. They join Mada Sylvan and Ella Simmons this season as captains.
Holy Names: The Cougars finished second behind three-time Class 3A/2A state champ Kamiakin last year. Beyond ace Elena Fowler, top performers include sophomore Kaysa Lundberg (eighth in state all-around last year), junior Maria Gallivan and freshman Cait McNeil.
Bainbridge: Under coach Cindy Guy, in her 37th year, the Spartans fell about four points shy of Holy Names (168.55-164.65) on Dec. 2 in the first of two regular-season meetings of Metro League pacesetters. Top scorers include sophomores Remi Rosencrans and SiQi Talley and junior Emma Chee.
Lake Washington: Posting 160-level scores in their first two meets, the progressing Kangaroos have the potential to score higher behind freshman all-around star Audrey Arnold and juniors Kaysha Walford and Paige Chickering.
As has been the norm for decades, the state meet will use equipment trucked in from Sammamish because of its quality, the result of long-running fundraising efforts Penney put in place early in his career. One was his famed Christmas Clinics (1970-80) that hosted up to 400 gymnasts for four-day training sessions taught by local collegians and sometimes attended by luminaries such as Olympic coach Abie Grossfeld.
“I just wanted to do a clinic for a lot of kids,” he said.
From a jammed upstairs storage room in Sammamish’s vintage Quonset hut-style gymnasium, Penney pulls out a monotone clinic brochure and points to a pair of young gymnasts in a photo.
“That’s Laurel Tindall (now in her 40th year as coach at Seattle Pacific), and this is Patti Lanterman (who opened the gym Northwest Aerials in 1979). They’re just little girls here.”
Such devotion to the sport is one reason why Penney, among many accolades, was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2011.
In a quirk of fate, he and Leifer — the basketball hopeful and the coach who steered him to gymnastics — were inducted into the WIAA Hall of Fame at the same ceremony in 2010.
No one is eager to see Penney go.
“Jerry is the patriarch of KingCo gymnastics as well as high-school gymnastics throughout our state,” Ryan Fleisher, in her 17th year at Issaquah, said. “He has talked about retiring, but I guess it never sank in that he might actually be serious. I learned so much from Jerry. There will definitely be a void without him.”
As the gym goes, so goes Penney
At 73, Penney remains spry and nimble. During an early practice each season he performs what is known as a kip, an arm-supported pop-up maneuver on a bar that requires ample arm and leg strength, just to show the kids the old man still has it.
So why retire? The gym is being torn down next month, to be replaced by a new facility.
“I thought about retiring five years ago when I retired from teaching,” he said. “I asked Paulette, what if I just waited until they tore it down. Then it would be the old guy and the old gym, and they went out together. That’s what we’re doing.”
When he visited Al Armstrong’s gymnastics room in Renton in 1958, Penney discovered a new world of interest.
“I liked to study human movement, just to understand how people make their bodies do what they can do in gymnastics, the twisting and the flipping, the physics of it all,” he said.
He went on to compete at Washington State, where an innovative move he devised — a high-bar maneuver, the German Giant, he modified for his specialty, parallel bars — was named for him, the Penney Giant.
“In those days, getting a trick named after you was a little easier than it is now,” he said, smiling.
“I never had a girl I disliked,” Penney said. “I always found something I liked about them. We’ve had some kids who needed to be here, and you feel better about that. You get kids who need to be up here (in Sammamish’s second-floor training area). Because if you’re not up here, your life is not going to be going good.
“You need to spend these three hours every day with this social group because maybe your social group isn’t as good. Up here you can have friends and people who will support you, and that’s a good thing.”
Helen Wong won a district all-around title under Penney in 2003. “I felt burned out after competing club, but JP’s optimistic coaching revived my love of the sport,” she says, “I was raised by a single mom, and JP was a father figure to me — a steady, supportive presence throughout the drama of high school. He made SHS gymnastics the best kind of family, and I’m so grateful for those years.”
Penney marvels at how many connections his career has generated. Years ago when a new dentist replaced his former dentist, he looked up from the exam chair to see a former gymnast, Jolene Suh, ready to examine his molars.
“Now I’m going to have one of my ex-students sticking her hand into my mouth and fixing my teeth?” Penney said.
Penney still sends an annual Christmas card to a fellow who was on his first boys team in 1970 — Pete Smith, the local boot-fitting legend at the downtown REI. A few years ago he was invited to join a reunion of SHS gymnasts. “One was an oceanographer, one’s a physics professor in Toronto, one runs a ranch in eastern Washington. That’s pretty amazing.”
Genoway, who said Penney has never cut a gymnast from a team, recalls a state meet when coaches, judges and officials who had been guided by Penney at some point gather for a group photo. More than a dozen people squeezed into the photo.
Bainbridge coach Condy Guy, in her 37th year at the school, competed for Penney 1972-75.
“I was young, so and inexperienced,” she recalled of her early years of coaching. “I ran my practices just like Jerry did. I’ve been influenced by him to treat all kids the same.”
A section on the wall in the SHS training area has been signed at season’s end by seniors for decades. “When the building is torn down, I want to cut that section out and put it in Jerry’s garage,” Genoway said. “The one thing they all have in common is that he made them feel special, and it was unconditional.”
Penney smiles. “I’ve really enjoyed all the people I have known, and the satisfaction of working with all these kids,’ he says. I get a big charge out of working with kids. I love watching them learn things. They light up when they learn new tricks. I’m like any old coach, I think. You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t like the kids. And I really enjoy the kids.”