MILFORD — The journey for Jonathan Law girls’ gymnastics coach Pat Simon began in 1963 while fooling around on the trampoline with friends at the local YMCA when he was student at Platt High in Meriden. Gymnastics wasn’t offered at Platt, so Simon took up diving for the swim team before enrolling at Southern Connecticut State University.
“Gymnastics was big at Southern because of Abie Grossfeld,” Simon said of the Hall of Famer who coached American gymnasts at the 1964, 1972, 1984, and 1988 Olympic Games. “I was working on the trampoline and Abie came up and said: ‘I want you on my team.’ I couldn’t believe this Olympic coach wanted me.”
Simon competed from 1965-69 with the likes of John Crosby, who competed in eight events at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Crosby won 13 individual NCAA titles and captured the Nissen Award in 1974 as the top gymnast in the nation and spent two summers living in Simon’s apartment next to the gym while working out for the Olympic Trials.
“The fun part at Southern was we never knew who was going to be in the gym,” said Simon. “People would come to practice for the Olympics speaking other languages. Once I was practicing on trampoline and this guy came over and asked if he could have a turn. I said sure. At the time he was the world champion, George Hery. He won an NCAA vault title and became the first trampoline athlete to successfully compete a triple back in competition. It was unbelievable. It got us motivated.”
After graduation, Simon went looking for a coaching job to go with his degree in physical education.
“I had a contract offered to me in 1969 to teach grades 4 through 8 at Live Oaks School in Milford,” said Simon who retired from teaching in 2008 after 39 years. “I wanted to be a high school coach, but there were no jobs available. I ran a few after-school activities with the Milford Rec. Dept. Then I was asked to coach girls’ gymnastics at Law.”
While his coaching dream was realized, Simon admitted it came with a challenge. There was no equipment for his original team of 12 gymnasts to work with.
“Back then we had a wrestling mat, wood beams and we had an old pommel horse that we used for vaulting,” Simon remarked. “They took the pommels off and put carriage bolts where the holes were and then we taped over the whole thing so a gymnast wouldn’t put their finger in the hole and maybe break their finger.”
There were only 7 to 8 inches on the top. Gymnasts as easily slid off the side as they did in finishing their vault cleanly. There were backup panel mats in place.
“We now have padded beams, eight-inch landing mats, a vault table that is spring-loaded and uneven bars that are made of fiberglass rather than wood. The equipment moves and bends with you,” Simon noted. “It is a whole different sport from what it was back then.”
What hasn’t changed is Simon’s coaching style.
“You know what I tell the girls: just have fun,” said Simon of a gymnasts’ need to improve. “I say to the girls go out there show off and have a good time doing it. If they have a score they want to reach and they get it, great. If they didn’t get there this time, well we’ll work on it.”
Simon said he has guided his team to three league titles and that twice his team has finished second at state championships.
“Winning SCCs over Mercy last year, well it was so close all the way through,” he said of Law’s 126.6-126.4 victory. “It was a matter of everyone hitting. That’s the way it must be to win. We took second place in a state tournament one time by just a couple of 10ths of a point because everyone hit on every single event. If you can have a good beam set where all six girls do well then you are going to do good. If they get up there and start falling off, it’s going to be contagious.”
Simon said he loves the teaching side of gymnastics.
“The fun part of coaching is helping them, watching them,” he said. “That’s the thing that’s kept me going. I enjoy working with the kids. I love to watch them mature from freshman to senior while they improve. It can be a remarkable change. I’ve learned that when they are freshman and you talk to them as adults they listen. That carries forward until they are adults.”