Wis. Gymnastics Hall-of-Famer Cheryl Hancock marvels at sport’s enrichment of her life

Holmen school board member leaped from balance beam to coach to longtime judge

HOLMEN, Wis. (WKBT) – Oddly enough, Cheryl Hancock ended up specializing in the gymnastic event she disliked the most, but she ended up qualifying for state on the balance beam when she was a senior at Cashton High School decades ago.

“It was the event I hated most,” Hancock said during an interview Tuesday as she reminisced about the beam bounce that also propelled her into the Wisconsin High School Gymnastics Association Hall of Fame Thursday.

The 63-year-old Hancock explained that gymnastics coach Bev Bjornstad insisted that all team members try out for every event. Bjornstad must have seen something in Hancock’s balance beam technique that looked promising, because that’s where she landed.

Hancock, executive director the the Coulee Council on Addictions in La Crosse, attributed her induction into the Hall of Fame to her extended career in the sport, including being an assistant coach at Westby, as well head coaching stints in Sparta and West Salem and 35 years of judging gymnastics contests.

“It was for dedication to the sport,” said Hancock, who has attained a Master level as a judge.

Bjornstad was able to attend the induction banquet in Madison, which Hancock said made the event “even more special.”

Asked how gymnastics today compare with those of yesteryear, Hancock said, “Ohmigosh — the skill level is so different.”

When she prowled the beam, she said, her fanciest maneuver was basically a forward role. “The young women today do forward rolls, aerials and other moves. Things are significantly different — it’s scary,” she said.

Among the biggest changes in the sport is the shape of what once was called to vault horse, which now is a vault table that allows more difficult feats, Hancock said.

The uneven bars were close enough back then that competitors could touch their stomachs on the low bar while swinging from the high bar, she said. Now, the bars are so far apart that the routines incorporate flying maneuvers. The uneven bars of the earlier era were anchored merely with braces on the floor, while the skill levels these days require the bars to be farther apart, requiring them to be anchored to the floor with screwed-in plates.

For floor exercises, Hancock and her teammates just used wrestling mats arranged into bigger layouts, while nowadays, the layouts have springs underneath to allow for faster speeds and higher leaps and bounds, she said.

Hancock, who grew up in Melvina, a tiny village about 6 miles north of Cashton, marvels at how gymnastics have enhanced her life.

“Gymnastics provided lifelong friends and opportunities a small-town girl from Melvina wouldn’t have experienced,” she said.

Hancock’s “gymnastics buddies” have bonded over the years to be not only lifelong friends but also a reliable support network.

When her daughter passed away several years ago from substance use disorders, Hancock said, “My gymnastics buddies were the first ones … who wrapped their arms around us, literally and figuratively.”

Another aspect of gymnastics that has been rewarding is judging. “You do your work and judge — and they pay you,” she said, awed at the very idea of being paid for doing something she loves.

Hancock set aside her judging paychecks for special purchases, she said, adding, “I bought my golf clubs, and my wedding dress, and I’ve traveled the world,” often with her gymnastics buds.

Hancock’s athletic interests also have served her well during her service on the Holmen School Board, of which she has been a member since 1996, including the past 12 as board president.

As the board mulled an addition and renovations for the high school, “I was an advocate for space for gymnastics and wrestling.”