For Temple Men’s Head Coach Jesse Kitzen-Abelson, Adventure Is Out There

“Durban, Tel Aviv, Reykjavik, Walvis Bay…” If Jesse Kitzen-Abelson were able to write his own verse of ‘I’ve Been Everywhere,’ that would be the opening line. Since graduating as a second-generation gymnast from Temple University’s then-NCAA men’s gymnastics team in 2011, he’s gotten his fair share of passport stamps from coaching around the world. 

That year, Kitzen-Abelson, along with fellow Temple men’s gymnastics seniors, received a message from then-head coach Fred Turoff, detailing a job opportunity coaching gymnastics in Durban, South Africa. While he typically considers himself a risk-avoidant decision-maker, he ultimately opted to pack up a few suitcases and move across the world to take the role. Initially intending on coaching for a few months, he remained coaching at Pinetown Gymnastics Club outside of Durban for nearly five years. 

Put bluntly, he shares “It’s not America.” Membership fees and concrete scheduling that are typical to the North American gymnastics structure only serve as a socioeconomic barrier to many South African athletes, who often take largely unregulated minibus taxis to and from the gym. He credits Allan Chadwick with structuring Pinetown Gymnastics similar to a YMCA to combat low membership. Chadwick routinely sourced work opportunities and transportation money for the gym’s members, regardless of economic status or language barriers. Kizten-Abelson notes that Chadwick was instrumental to keeping athletes in gymnastics and in providing opportunities (often in the form of sourcing grant money) for them to continue growing their skill sets. 

Upon returning to Philadelphia, Kitzen-Abelson found his NCAA team on the brink of extinction. No longer receiving funding and now out of a league, the Owls were forced to get creative if they wanted to remain a team. The answer took shape as GymACT, which officially formed in 2018. In the five seasons since the stable formation of the league, the team rediscovered its identity.


He adds that this team understands what it means to work for the opportunities they have, doing lots of fundraisers and event setups. His athletes have been the equipment crew for every Temple women’s and men’s meet since 2021 and have handled responsibility for both on the same weekend. Longtime former head coach Fred Turoff, who Kitzen-Abelson cements as a legend, has a vast web of connections in the sport. Through his decades at the helm of the program, and now in his assistant role, Turoff built and maintains a large piece of the team’s culture. Aside from his resume in the sport being a literal book, his awareness of opportunities in gymnastics is impressed on Temple’s gymnasts. With the two of them in control, there’s no limit to what can be accomplished by the Owls. “Doesn’t matter if it’s varsity or non-varsity,” affirms Jesse. 

If ever watching training footage out of Temple’s Pearson-McGonigle hall, keep an eye out for a flag bearing “M21” behind the rings—the vibrant logo of the most recent Maccabiah Games. For reasons even Kitzen-Abelson can’t summarize, the Owls have a storied history of sending members to represent their home nations at the multisport event. The duo of Kizten-Abelson and longtime friend Evan Eigner became the 18th and 19th to attend, coaching Maccabi USA’s men’s and women’s senior teams to silver medals. He speaks highly of the competition, mentioning that “after finally being a part of these Games, I want to help share that this exists. It goes under the radar for whatever reason for a lot of people. Maybe it’s a thing they would’ve seen later and thought why didn’t I apply for this?” The Games (and the flag) will always be a conversation starter with Jewish gymnasts, now with the memento on display.

Kitzen-Abelson (left) with his father who is also a Temple Gymnastics alumni (right), posing with the M21 flag

Though South Africa, Israel, and the United States are seemingly worlds apart, the three have definitely overlapped. Luke James, who Kitzen-Abelson had coached while in Durban, now competes for the University of Nebraska. He is the first South African to compete on the men’s side of the sport in the NCAA since 2016, and in Kitzen-Abelson’s words “is one of those gymnasts that makes me look good as a coach.” While coaching in Israel, he also led Hayden Goldstein—an active GymACT competitor amongst a team full of Division I gymnasts—to an individual medal. 

What began as a few months abroad turned into petting cheetahs, learning to play cricket and speak Zulu, as well as a whole onslaught of gymnastics education. “You may as well take the risk,” he said. If you have the skills to get yourself into a situation, you likely also have the skills to fix it—but more importantly you have the skills to provide positive opportunities where they’re missing. 

READ THIS NEXT: GymACT and the Growth of Men’s Collegiate Gymnastics

Article by Peri Goodman

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