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Gymnastics across Generations

The state gymnastics championship scheduled here next month has stirred memories for three sisters who competed for Medford High School and the University of Oregon.

Cindi Rasmussen, Jodi Murphy and Nancy McLemore — the daughters of legendary track coach Dean Benson — recall the days when the sport was integrated into the high school scene.

"We had the best of both worlds — gymnastics and high school sports," McLemore says.

Her 15-year-old daughter Mariah McLemore carries on the tradition of gymnastics for a family that played a prominent role in the sport in Southern Oregon. Mariah's brother, Ryan McLemore, is a senior member of North Medford's boys basketball team.

Much has changed in Medford gymnastics since the sisters competed in what evolved into a club sport funded by parents. While the Bensons competed against schools such as Ashland, Phoenix, Crater, North Valley, Henley, Lakeview and Marshfield, Mariah's meets are held across the country.

And while a handstand on the uneven bars was an advanced skill in her mom's era, Mariah's generation does a handstand in a complete circle around the bars, several times — with many tricks in between.

"I'm impressed with Mariah," says her aunt, Cindi, who competed as a beam specialist for the University of Oregon in 1981. "Mariah does moves I would never dream of doing."

Her niece will vault, soar and fly at the Oregon state championships for levels 7 through 10 on April 4-5 at Cascade Christian High School in Medford.

"It's amazing what these girls are doing now and it will be so fun to watch the state meet. I remember what it felt like to be out and it doesn't seem that long ago," says Jodi, one of two Oregonians selected to compete in the senior national high school meet in Denver in 1985, where she placed third on the beam.

Gymnasts today have bigger tricks because they have better equipment and stronger technique. The Benson sisters used a wood beam, which was hard on the knees. Today's beams are padded, spring filled and covered with soft material.

The Bensons tumbled on wrestling mats while their daughters do round off, back tucks on cushioned spring floors.

In the Bensons' day, the uneven bars were wide and hard to grasp. Today's gymnasts get a good grip on the narrow bars using leather straps.

In the Bensons' day, the vault sat crossways instead of lengthwise. And they launched from a piece of plywood, not the springboards that propel today's gymnasts high into the air for double and triple turns and twists.

"The way they do gymnastics is healthier today," Jodi says. "They have stronger bodies and there is not so much arching of the back. The equipment gives more and is easier on the bodies."

Jill Hill, who owns Southern Oregon Gymnastics Academy with her husband, Gene — the sponsors of the state meet — give credit to the sport's governing body.

"USA Gymnastics is continually changing and improving things for the athlete's safety and the training of the coaches," says Jill Hill, who has two competitive gymnast daughters. "They are always looking out for the safety of the athlete."

Even with the new safety measures, injuries happen. Mariah sprained an elbow recently while learning the sole circle on the uneven bars. It brought back memories of Jodi breaking her foot doing an aerial cartwheel and Cindi's collar bone injury at Oregon. She also had knee surgery when she was 15. Both generations experience the pain of ripped skin in their hands from torn blisters.

Nonetheless, they have no regrets.

"If I didn't do gymnastics, I would have done another sport like track or skiing that would have brought its own set of injuries," says Cindi, whose daughter, Aubree, a former team gymnast, is now the varsity cheerleader at South Medford High School. And Jodi's daughter, Maegan, 9, is a beginning gymnast.

"Gymnastics is a great sport," Cindi says. "You have friends of all ages. You can be a role model and have camaraderie all year long, not just one season. It keeps you out of trouble, keeps you young and keeps you naïve, because you are always in the gym."

The stretching and conditioning prepares athletes for any sport, says Nancy, who coached a Level 4-5 team in Anchorage, Alaska, when she was 21 and now teaches 4- and 5-year- olds at SOGA.

"Gymnastics gives you balance, strength and coordination," she says.

The sisters' competitive drive and athletic DNA came from their dad, Dean Benson, a tremendous athlete who placed fourth in the 1956 Olympic trials and also was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. Although he made the pre-season roster, he didn't play in the NFL because he failed the physical exam due to a heart murmur.

A Bend High track star and Willamette University record holder, Dean Benson coached Medford High to a state track championship. Even though he coached football during his daughters' gymnastics season, he managed to slip into a meet just in time to watch one of their events. His wife, Judy, spent so much time in the gym with their daughters she became a gymnastics judge. After her death, judges in the region started a tradition of giving an award in her honor.

"Our mom was so supportive of whatever her kids were doing," Nancy says. "She was a den mother when our brother, Mark, was in Cub Scouts." And Jodi adds: "She was a generous judge in gymnastics."

During the decade of competition, the sisters enjoyed humorous moments in their sport. One coach took every error during competition so hard she buried her face in her hands. At one meet, a gymnast played on her coach's antics by purposely tumbling off the beam several times. And Jodi and Cindi had the nicknames Cheerio and Pretzel because they were so flexible.

Even when competition ended, the sisters found themselves in the gym coaching and judging. They stuck with the demanding sport because they loved it and treasured the gym friendships. It's the same for Mariah, who is a freshman at Cascade Christian High School.

"I do gymnastics because it is fun and you have a lot of friends and you build relationships in the gym," Mariah says.

For the Benson sisters, gymnastics kept them close, especially after the death of their parents.

"We spent a lot of hours together," Cindi says, "with a common goal."

Gymnastics across Generations