Byron Knox knows a thing or two about challenges. Despite being told he started too late and was too tall, the Bronx high school sophomore continued studying gymnastics, eagerly learning everything he could. Knox turned his weakness into his biggest strength by optimizing his 6-foot, 2-inch height to execute double-twisting flips and showcasing his long lines and extension. If he started too late in the sport, the 1982 U.S. Men’s National Team selection committee must have missed the memo.
Nearly 40 years later, it’s no surprise Knox chose to accept the head coaching position at Southern Connecticut, embracing the many challenges and heartbreak the team has experienced over the past year.
When he was offered the position, Knox was already on a familiar landscape. As a student-athlete, Knox competed for the SCSU men’s team. He helped the Owls win four consecutive Eastern Intercollegiate Gymnastics League (EIGL) championships, as well as the 1979 NCAA Men’s Eastern Region Gymnastics Championship, all following an NCAA national championship bronze medal in 1978.
He also knew Director of Athletics Jay Moran from the University of Bridgeport where the two had an excellent working relationship, with Moran giving Knox the necessary tools to support the gymnastics coaching staff and set the student-athletes up for success. Moran brought the same philosophies to SCSU.
“I decided to go back to my alma mater and help there because of the tragic loss they had last year,” Knox said, referring to the death of SCSU gymnast Melanie Coleman. “They needed not just an Xs and Os coach, but someone who would counsel and help the kids cope.”.
Knox is emphatic about rebuilding the program, remaking it into what it used to be. He wants to strive to put together a competitive program that is set up for success on the competition floor.
However, he sees other issues that need to be addressed first. “The goal is to service the upperclassmen because they’re the ones that held the program together. All of the underclassmen—the freshman and the sophomores—they still have time on the clock, so to speak, to do competitive gymnastics.”
Knox didn’t start working with his new team until the fall but dismisses the idea that he came into SCSU late. “I’m going to face this thing head-on,” he said. “The average coach may say, ‘You have a challenge because they’re starting late.’ In some cases, you can use that as an excuse, but we’re not going to.”
Instead he sees it as an opportunity to accomplish what hasn’t been done in the past. “Can you imagine this? We start as late as we have, and if we can get into a position to be competitive, that says a lot for the support that I have at the university.”
In addition to 16 years of coaching college gymnasts at Bridgeport, Knox also coached elites at the club level, placing many of them on the national team. He believes he can once again go into a college setting and manifest a program that can be competitive for years. That starts with the coaching staff he brought in to help him make it happen.
Assistant coaches Kelli Tereshko and Lorraine Galow followed Knox from Bridgeport while Isabella Antonangeli was a student-athlete and recent graduate from SCSU. Knox believes she will bridge the gap between the old coaching staff, the new staff and her former teammates.
His tactical plan is to change some of the SCSU program’s culture, beginning with its conditioning. He not only wants to emphasize the importance of it but the importance of strength and stretch conditioning as well.
“That’s something that they spent minimal time doing,” Knox said. “That’s going to be at least a third of what we have to do.”
Knox uses three different terms: training, working out and exercising. He explains that training is when somebody focuses on trying to make personal gains. Working out is when somebody goes into a health club and picks any machine, getting in a workout. Exercising is more of a warm-up—just to get going.
Knox says the team has been merely exercising in the past, so he plans to create a workout plan and then a training plan. This is because, Knox claims, college gymnasts aren’t meant to do big number repetitions. “With the experience that I have, I can take the emphasis on the reps and put more emphasis on fitness.”
Maintaining his program will put the gymnasts in better shape, with less likelihood of injuries because of overuse. “That’s part of the philosophy and one of the reasons why we’ve had a ton of success at Bridgeport—because of that fitness model.”
His training philosophy has experienced road blocks on the way, though. Not helped along by the fact that the team has to practice in two completely separate gyms on opposite ends of the campus. Currently the gymnasts practice beam and bars at one end of the campus, then get into a car to drive to the other side of the campus to practice floor and vault. While getting the team all under one roof is the ultimate goal, it’s not the most pressing problem.
The pandemic has put a strain on every program, no matter how rich, which makes managing the budget particularly difficult. This past Friday, the Ivy League (which includes Brown, Cornell, Penn and Yale in gymnastics and who all compete with SCSU in the ECAC) announced the cancelation of the winter sports seasons, leaving SCSU short of meets in 2021.
“The competitions we scheduled for this year will pose a huge problem; it’s become a domino effect for us,” Knox said. “We were trying to stay local to compete home and away multiple times because of COVID and our limited budget. Even if we find other competitions to attend, our budget may not allow overnight team travel. Although it poses a problem, I am committed to giving my athletes the best possible competitive experience this season.”
While the challenges of 2020 continue to snowball, Knox never stops believing in what he was meant to do. He believes it is his calling to get the athletes to believe in themselves, and once they believe in themselves, anything is possible.
Knox likens it to seeing boxers on TV doing interviews before a fight. Both opponents swear they’ll be victorious. It’s that no-holds-barred confidence he wants his gymnasts to emulate.
“That confidence comes in training and their belief,” he said. “That’s what I try to instill in these guys—that same sort of mentality, believing in yourself. That’s a huge power, untapped.”
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Article by Kelly Feng
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