The United State’s First African-American Male Gymnastics Olympian
When I was growing up in Indiana in the fifties I fell in love with sports. I and my athletic childhood friend across the street were always playing sports. We collected all the baseball, football and basketball cards we could. We watched all the games that black and white television offered on the three network stations of ABC, NBC or CBS. I clearly remember the “black and blue” Division of the National Football League–the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and the new Minnesota Vikings. I remember the teams playing outdoors in the mud and rain battling it out. These were the pre Super Bowl Days. All my relatives were from Chicago; so I took note of the Chicago Bears and their legendary coach, George Halas. Today’s Bears fans are still aware of Walter “Sweetness” Payton; one the NFL’s all time greats. Older Bear fans also remember Gale Sayers, the great running back with bad knees, but how many remember Willie Galimore? He was one of my favorite players to watch on TV. Willie was a three time All-American (53-56) from Florida A&M University who is the FAMU all time leading ground gainer. Willie played for the legendary collegiate Coach Alonzo Smith “Jake” Gaithers. After six years in the NFL (1957-63), Willie helped lead the Chicago Bears to the NFL Championship in 1963. By this time I was in college on the East coast and shocked when I suddenly heard the radio announcement that fall that informed the nation that Willie Galimore and Bo Farrington, a wide receiver, were killed in an automobile accident in Northern Indiana during the Bears training camp. My heart was saddened.
In 1966 I took the physical education instructor and men’s gymnastics team coaching job at Miami Dade Community College. I quickly became aware of Coach Hartley Price’s Florida State University gymnastics dynasty of the 1950’s and early sixties in Tallahassee. I would page through the annual Gymkana show program that listed the accomplishments of the FSU gymnastics team and the Tallahassee Tumbling Tots (TTT). The Tallahassee Tumbling Tots were a local recreation department gymnastics program for young girls in the Tallahassee area that Price had initiated. Gymkana program pictures included a group of talented young white girls posing together in their monogrammed TTT leotards and hamming it up for the camera with one little black boy in the middle. Wait a minute! Who is that kid? The common explanation I received is that he liked to tumble and his father was a football player. Yes, it was true; his father was the late and great Chicago Bear running back, Willie Galimore!
My gymnasts went to the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Junior Nationals in Valpariso, Florida in 1970. I was very aware as a head coach of all the gymnastics talent around in the State and the Southeastern United States. Upon arrival at the meet site, I remember getting my team situated in the competition gym. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a thin young black boy (age 10) run down the vault runway and execute a near perfect handspring. I later introduced myself to him and suggested that he try a “Yamashita” vault. I said, “just come in lower than a handspring, then push and pike like a jack knife dive and kick it open. “ He said he would try it and down the runway he went. His first attempt was just as good as any of the one’s the top collegiate vaulters were currently performing.
I became heavily involved in the AAU National Junior Olympic program in the late sixties. The Junior Olympics was a “stepping stone” for several other Florida Olympians: Kurt Thomas, Kim Chace and Carrie Englert Zimmerman. In Miami, we ran two week training camps for the four regional champions who were going to nationals. The two age groups were 12-14 and 15-18 male and female. Ron Galimore and Kurt Thomas filled the two boy age groups for 1972 in Spokane AAU JO Championships and again in 1973 for Ann Arbor. Kurt won the national all-around title in the 1973 NAAUJO’s at the University of Michigan while Ron was third in his age group.
Besides my help, Ron was being mentored by Jack Miles, the former NAAU all-around champion and Recreation Dept. Director, of Ft. Lauderdale. Danny Gatsinos, a former MDCC and West Virginia U. gymnast, took a job in Tallahassee with the Board of Regents and became Ron‘s on site gymnastics coach. Ron was now getting the help he needed to reach the top. Danny hoped that Ron would receive a scholarship at Cal-Berkeley and get coached by Mas Watanabe who had a reputation for developing international gymnasts. Suddenly and tragically at age 34, Dan Gatsinos died of a malignant brain tumor. Ron decided to stay closer to home with his mother, brother and sister in Tallahassee and enrolled at Louisiana State University to be coached by Olympian Armando Vega. Ron seemed to stagnate gymnastically and academically. He made a decision to transfer to Iowa State University after his sophomore year to be coached and mentored by Edward Gagnier. It was a good decision. He flourished at ISU, bolstering his academics and winning three NCAA vaulting titles and one in floor exercise. He scored the first perfect ten in NCAA men’s competition history in the vault event in the 1981 NCAA Gymnastics Championships. In 1980 he became the first African-American to make the US men’s gymnastics Olympic team, only to become one the “forgotten Olympians” when President Jimmy Carter called for the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics due in part to the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR. Ron later performed in the first professional gymnastics tour sponsored by Madison Square Garden and the Kurt Thomas Professional Tour. He worked at as the assistant coach at ISU.
The well-spoken Galimore put his speech major to work as a television analyst and as announcer for the USGF/Nissan Motor Corp. auto show program. He served as Florida’s USGF State Men’s Chairman for five years and operated Ron Galimore’s Athletic Training Center USA (1986-94). He joined USAG in Indianapolis in 1994 and was responsible for fiduciary and programming for men’s gymnastics. In 2005, Ron was promoted to a USAG vice Presidency position. Ron resides in Carmel, Indiana with his wife Loree’ not very far from some of the NFL stadiums in which his father excelled as a running back.
Among my favorite memories of Ron were his sky high double backs performed on crude mats in 90 degree heat at Miami Central HS during JO training sessions. He made the other black kids who were in the gym playing basketball, eyes pop, when he performed his floor exercise routine. Ron was also an expert on trampoline. I remember him bouncing at my private gym with 20’ high ceiling beams. He would go up and catch the steel beam with his hands and hang and attract my attention by kicking and laughing. Pretty soon he had worked out a ten bounce routine after each beam grab executing a different trick every time he returned to the trampoline. At Miami Dade I remember him coming from the locker room and casually sliding his gym bag across the wood basketball floor and then tagging along behind it. He would execute a high roundoff tuck and tap the basketball goal with one hand on his way to the gymnastics workout area. Most of all I remember Ron’s easygoing demeanor and his work ethic. It was a pleasure to work with him as an athlete. It is good to see what he has achieved as an athlete, coach and administrator. I know his mother is extremely proud of him and his father would be too!