Hansen’s Top Teams, No. 74: 1992 Gymcats vaulted UA into national contention | Subscriber

Jim Gault had one of the better jobs in American gymnastics in 1980. He traveled the world coaching women’s gymnasts in international competitions and his thriving academy in San Ramon, California — Diablo Gymnastics — generated a reputation of excellence.

A former junior high school teacher from San Jose State, Gault coached in the World Championships, the Pan American Games and became part of the USA Olympics coaching staff.

When I sat down for lunch with Gault in a South Tucson restaurant in the spring of 1992, he told me he was set for life coaching gymnastics in Northern California.

“I was 44, but I wanted a new challenge,” he said. “I knew the job at Arizona was open, and I sent them my resume.”

After UA senior women’s athletic administrator Mary Roby examined about 25 applications, she offered the job to Gault. He took it, he said, without misgivings — except that it required a significant paycut.

“When I came to Arizona, the program had no past, no history of note,” he said. “I came in wanting to put Arizona on the map.”

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By 1992, the map of NCAA gymnastics included Arizona.

Gault coached the Wildcats to a 10th-place finish in the 1984 NCAA finals and to ninth in 1988. But it peaked in 1992 when the Wildcats opened with 11 consecutive victories, lost to perennial gymnastics power Oregon State, finished a still best-ever second in the Pac-10 Championships and rolled through the NCAA Regionals, undefeated in five more matches.

“It was the best team we had,” Gault told me when he retired in 1998. “We were so close to winning the national championship.”

The UA’s ’92 gymnastics team reflected on Gault’s resourceful recruiting ability. He recruited four future UA Sports Hall of Fame gymnasts to the 1992 roster.

He found All-American Jenna Karbadil in Virginia. She was inducted into the UA Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.

He recruited 1992 first-team All-American Stacy Fowlkes, who had become disenchanted after two years on the Cal State Fullerton team. Fowlkes would be inducted into the UA Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.

Gault found Anna Basaldua in Minnesota, and Kristi Gunning in Scottsdale. They were inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 1998 and 2006, respectively.

Arizona has never won the Pac-10 gymnastics championship, mostly because UCLA and Oregon State have dominated the league the way Alabama and Clemson control SEC football. But to Gault’s credit, Arizona finished No. 2 in 1990 and 1992 and were strongly competitive almost every season.

Those early-’90s finishes and the way he quickly turned Arizona into a national power, combined with his pre-Arizona days, earned Gault induction into the prestigious USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1992.

There’s more. In the late 1980s, the parents of 6-year-old Tucson gymnast Kerri Strug asked Gault if he would work with their daughter. They asked if she had the physical skills to have a future in gymnastics.

“It was a no-brainer,” Gault told me. “Kerri had the ‘it’ factor.”

In his spare time, Gault worked with Strug for eight years, which included breakout victories in Europe and reputation-growing victories in American competition. In ’92, Strug moved to Houston to train with global gymnastics coaching star Bela Karolyi. Four years later, Strug’s gold medal-clinching vault in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics made her internationally famous.

She never hesitated to give Gault credit for developing her gymnastics skills.

That was a long way from Gault’s first years at the Diablo Gymnastics School, which began in 1966 at the Pleasant Hill Park and Recreation Department. When Gault’s gymnasts outgrew the limitation of rented space in a school gymnasium, he moved the operation to an empty Safeway building.

That modest beginning led to the UA’s epic 1992 season and Strug’s gold medal.

After leaving Arizona, where he compiled a 344-153 record, Gault moved to South Carolina and worked on the staff at the Midlands Elite Gymnastics Academy. He died in 2013 at age 77.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or ghansen@tucson.com. On Twitter: @ghansen711

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