How did I ever get here?

I was a little brother. My oldest brother was a swimmer, motorcycle enthusiast and a bit of a rebel. The middle-brother was a natural athlete. He was great at anything and everything he did in sports. My parents were divorced and so, after school it often fell on my brothers to watch me. When I was with Harold, the middle brother (no one but me calls him Harold, he’s usually Harry), he took me with him to the gym. I watched the high school guys, his team mates, working out. Sitting on the sideline I would do handstands against the wall, or cartwheel off on my own. I idolized those guys. They were always having fun while working hard. The coach, a diminutive older man named Mel Leinwander, was awe inspiring. He was quiet but always in charge. In fact there is a legend that once, in the weight room, the football guys were picking on the gymnast guys and calling them weak. Typical athlete attitude with whiffs of competitiveness and a dash of homophobia usually fueled such battles. Male gymnasts are ridiculously strong for their size, Mel’s team was trained to ignore it and just get the work done. Once, Coach Leinwander had enough. He walked over, said nothing, and laid back on the bench press. He took the weight that the big linebackers were pressing and broke out a set of 10. Then he stood up and walked back over to his team without ever saying a word. That was the end of the aggressive banter from the football team.

J Orkowski's High School Gymnastics Team
Here’s us little guys. Yup, that’s me top right. (L to R: Kevin, Dean, me, Coach Dumke, Front: Pete and Al, Circa1980)

There was Bob Koma, who played a mini harmonica while doing handstands. He was always singing something, and usually pretty loud. He was a tumbler and I remember watching him and thinking how I wanted to be like that guy. Not JUST like him, I was way too quiet for that.
There was Tom Koeckritz, who was a madman. I remember him learning skills by just throwing them, often without lead up. He had an amazing sense of where he was in the air, and often threw caution to the wind because of it. He was often my motivation when I was learning new skills, I often thought that if TK could do it……
Another guy was Gary Aspinlighter, another tumbler and vaulter, who later became a high school coach. He was so passionate about the sport, and though I was never in his league while he was coaching, I did grow to develop the same passion. Gary had a unmistakable schnozz on him, and I remember once someone asking me what I would change if I could change one thing about my body? My answer was I wished I had a bigger nose. The coolest guys did. And though I sort of got my wish, I still think he beats me in nose and coolness.
Then there was my brother. His gymnastics was effortless. He would have been my favorite even if he wasn’t my brother. Harold is a good guy. Still not a drinker, never partook of typical high school shenanigans, and I never in my life ever heard him cuss. He followed the rules and led by a soft example. Today, as a school teacher he sets the rules that others follow and I’m sure his students are led the same way he led me, with patience and care and never taking someone’s effort from granted.
I look at those formative years and recall some of my role models. Most of them would not even recognize me if I walked up and shook their hand. If they did, it would be as Harry’s little brother, the quiet nerdy kid who was either reading or standing on his hands.
I was thinking the other day, how so many of the people who influence us in life rarely ever realize the impact they had. I wouldn’t even know if they were aware of me let alone know that after 40+ years, I am still in the sport. Because of guys like them I fell in love with gymnastics. I had it shape my life. It is the tool that provided me just about everything I have: family, business, a full heart; it is all provided to me by being in this sport.
Now as a guy who has been doing this quite a while, I don’t take lightly the power of a sport or activity to develop a child into an adult. From quiet resolve to boisterous song, from throwing caution aside to careful navigation of the rules, and from being silly to being driven and yet always aware that influence usually happens without our knowledge; I find myself still coaching. Still loving it and still loving the kids who choose gymnastics. I don’t take lightly our role in developing young people into healthy adults. And I am aware, now more than ever, that I owe so much to those high school gymnasts that unknowingly influenced me, and the guys before who influenced them. I even owe it to the kids I work with each night; because everyday I get to be inspired again and again.


  1. John Sweeney on September 6, 2021 at 12:13 pm

    That’s a great evocation of “gym time.” Funny how one remembers all the push and shove back then. Good times.

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