Bloomington South gymnastics team headed to State Tournament for the first time in seven years

Head Coach Michelle Stroud stepping down at the conclusion of season
Bloomington South gymnastics team poses for a photo following the Conference Indiana championship meet
Bloomington South gymnastics team poses for a photo following the Conference Indiana championship meet
Ashton Crosley

When the 2023-24 Girls Gymnastics State Tournament kicks off on Saturday, March 9 in Muncie on the campus of Ball State University, the Bloomington South Panther gymnastics team will be one of only nine teams who advanced to compete for the title.

What makes this trip so special is that there have only been four teams at South that have made it to State since the school began gymnastics in 1978. Additionally, long-time head coach and Panther gymnastics alum, Michelle Stroud, will be retiring at the end of the season.

Stroud is a graduate of South and was on the gymnastics team all four years of high school. She says she fell in love with the sport through her experiences at South, so much so that after she graduated, she came back as an assistant coach for the team. 

A few years later, Stroud was given an opportunity to lead the competitive gymnastics program at the YMCA, a role she maintained for 18 years. It was during that time that Stroud met now South senior and one of the gymnastics team captains, Stella Eibling. 

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Stroud was Eibling’s club coach and the two have been competing together since Eibling was five years old. 

Bloomington South gymnastics Head Coach Michelle Stroud looks on as senior captain Stella Eilbilng completes the first tumbling pass of her floor routine at the the Conference Indiana championship meet (Ashton Crosley)

“She’s like a second mom to me,” Eibling expressed. 

The relationships that Stroud has formed are core to the team’s success.

After the team’s last State appearance in 2017, the first season with Stroud as the head coach, the team essentially had to start over. That team had five seniors and two juniors who decided to pursue club gymnastics instead.

“[With no returning gymnasts], it was a brand new, very big growth process in getting kids interested [to try out],” Stroud said. 

“Confidence was a big issue for us this season. The girls just needed to believe in themselves. The amount of growth that [I’ve seen] from the beginning of the season to the end has been tremendous. To be [a State finalist] is pretty incredible. I don’t feel like I led them to State. I feel like they did that themselves. As the coach, you’re just there to be someone to support them, encourage them, and mentor them. They have to do the work,” Stroud said. 

Particularly for the seniors, going into every meet with the thought, “this one could be my last,” has been a huge motivator. 

“That has been a big thing that we have talked about. We’re honest about those things. If this were going to be your last meet, how would you want to go out? Our whole outlook on sectionals, for example, was let’s go out there, let’s do exactly our job, let’s do exactly what we’re here to do, and no matter where the scores fall, no matter what our team score is or where we place, if we can leave this gym and know that we did absolutely everything we could, that’s all we can ask for,” Stroud said.

Indulging in that mentality for the Panthers during sectionals led them to score a season-high 103.7 and third-place to advance as a team to regionals for the second year in a row. South placed first on beam (26.775), second on vault (26.25) and third on bars (23.85) and floor (26.725).

Bloomington South senior and co-captain Maddie Kawanishi enjoying a moment with her teammate, sophomore Chloe Gautier at the Conference Indiana championship meet (Ashton Crosley)

For South senior and team co-captain Maddie Kawanishi, there is a bit of familiarity that comes with this State Finals experience. Last season, Kawanishi qualified individually for State and competed on floor. This year, she is competing in all four events.

Though she has more routines to focus on this time around, Kawanshi communicated that she will prioritize having fun during this State trip.

“[Coach Stroud has] taught me so much. She has helped me [a lot] mentally with gymnastics which you don’t find with a lot of coaches,” Kawanishi said. “She’s taught me stuff for real-world experiences rather than just ‘point your toes.’”

Eibling added, “Overall, [being on the team has] made high school so much more enjoyable. The most rewarding aspect of being a senior gymnast has been seeing how everyone has grown over the season. I think seeing people push each other, [get] new skills, and put themselves in a leadership role when they might be an underclassman has been really fun to see.”

Stroud expressed her joy for coaching at South and her gratitude for every girl who has come through the program. She’s kept in contact with girls she coached 10 years ago, going to their weddings and keeping up with their children. It’s those relationships Stroud reflects on as her time as head coach comes to an end.

“I couldn’t ask for a better team to be retiring with. I’ve been so lucky to be their coach, that’s kind of how I’ve viewed the whole thing, I’m the lucky one. I feel like the legacy of South Gymnastics, and this was the legacy before I came in as head coach, is [what] a parent told me a few years ago. He said, ‘when my daughter started at South gymnastics, I knew she was joining a team. I didn’t know that we would be joining a family.’”

Coverage of the 52nd annual IHSAA Gymnastics State Finals coverage will begin at 11:00 a.m.

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