Josh and Jonathan Sarshalom aren’t like other kids. When Josh was 2 and Jonathan 4, they jumped on their parents’ mattress so much they broke the bed frame twice — and the mattress, too.
So Ezekiel and Lulu Sarshalom did what any parents who found their kids flipping on their mattress would do — they signed them up for gymnastics classes. Four years later, both boys were both national champions.
The kids, now 11 and 14, practice tumbling and trampoline (TNT) gymnastics at Gymnastics Du Sol, a private gym in North Miami, since most public schools can no longer afford to offer gymnastics programs.
But private training is far from cheap. Lessons cost the Sarshaloms $900 a month for three classes a week each. Registration, transportation and hotel room rentals can bring the cost of each local competition to over $500, and traveling to nationals each year costs the family thousands. Ezekiel, 60, estimates that the family spends $15,000 to $17,000 each year for the boys sons to participate in the sport.
The cost has meant huge sacrifice for the Sarshaloms, who live in a two-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot Aventura apartment where Josh and Jonathan share a room with their grandmother. Lulu, 45, works as a manager at Darnel, a textile importer/exporter in Hollyood. Ezekiel, —60, used to work one or two construction jobs a month, and started working at Gymnastics Du Sol a year ago to help cover the cost of training.
“I used to pick them up from school, which was important to me,” Ezekiel said. “I used to help them with their homework, and I liked that. I don’t do that anymore. Now Lulu has to be home, but she can’t — so the bus brings them home, and I don’t get home til eight.”
When they found out how little their sacrifices would do for their kids’ futures, Ezekiel and Lulu were devastated — and so were the kids.
“It makes me angry because we work really, really hard — sometimes you even break a bone, and then you find out that scholarships are very rare,” Josh Sarshalom said. “It’s kinda depressing because we work so hard for it.”
Colleges don’t offer TNT programs, and USA Gymnastics only offers four named scholarships each year.
According to Amy McDonald, trampoline and tumbling program manager at USA Gymnastics, the organization awarded $28,000 this year to 10 athletes who split the prizes. Youngsters who practice artistic gymnastics, a more popular form of the sport that has Division I programs in several colleges, aren’t much better off.
In most Division I sports, coaches are given a certain amount of scholarship money to divide among their team. According to scholarshipstats.com, soccer teams have 9.9 scholarships per roster of 29 players, baseball teams have 11.7 per team of 35, football teams have 63 scholarships for 85 football players and teams of 20 gymnasts receives only 6.3 scholarships each.
The disparity grows when the number of programs for each sport is taken into account. According to athleticsholarship.net, there are 252 Division I football teams, 351 basketball teams, 298 baseball teams, 204 soccer teams and 15 gymnastics teams nationwide. Multiply that by the number of scholarships available for each team, and you get over 21,000 football players receiving scholarships each year, compared to 90 male gymnasts.
The number of Division I programs for male gymnasts continues to decrease, despite a growing number of gymnasts throughout the nation. USA Gymnastics, the nation’s largest association for gymnasts, now boasts over 180,000 members and 3,200 gyms nationwide. In 2016, more than 30,000 gymnasts registered with the organization, according to Cheryl Jarrett, vice president of member services for the organization.
In the past six years, enrollment in USA Gymnastics competitions increased anywhere from 4 percent to 20 percent, depending on the discipline. And still, the number of college scholarships remains the same – only the top 3 percent of high school gymnasts are scouted by college recruiters. Justin Spring, head coach of men’s gymnastics at the University of Illinois and member-at-large of the College Gymnastics Association, predicts that the number of colleges that offer Division I gymnastics programs for both men and women will decrease in the upcoming years due to the financial burden they place on institutions and the physical toll on athletes.
The lucky few who do win scholarships love the sport for all it’s done for them.
“I did artistic gymnastics for 19 years. I missed out on a lot of experiences as a kid because I’d have practice until late at night,” said Logan Bradley, three-time NCAA All-American athlete, who just graduated from the University of Illinois. “But I have no regrets. Getting a gymnastics scholarship gave me validation that what I was doing all those years of my life during elementary school, middle school, high school, constantly going to practice was worth it.”
But the sacrifices made by the thousands who don’t will continue to go unnoticed unless there is change.
“Gymnastics needs more exposure,” Bradley said. “I’ve heard people say ‘Oh, trampoline! Is that a sport?’ — because there’s no exposure. We need exposure, we need front page stories, we need to be on television, so that people can see how hard these athletes are training to make it. They deserve a better shot.”