When Robert Colon arrived at John F. Kennedy Campus to take over the boys gymnastics team, he found a moribund program.
“It was a failing program,” the head coach said. “It was in shambles. But I revived it and got it to championship caliber within four years.”
The crammed trophy case outside Kennedy’s gym is a testament to past gymnastic glories for Colon and Kennedy. But now they’re going to have to make room for more hardware after the Knights took home the fifth city championship of Colon’s tenure.
Only this one was unexpected.
“I don’t know how we did it this year,” Colon said. “All of our most-established players from last year left, so I came into the year saying, ‘OK, what do I have?’ Are we going to be in the basement?”
In fact, Colon expected this to be a rebuilding year.
“But this group of guys, they weren’t the most talented,” Colon said, “but they were the hardest working group I’ve ever had, and they had the vision of winning a championship.”
At first Colon wasn’t sold on that vision.
“I was like, ‘OK, guys, it’s great to dream big, and hopefully down the line we’ll win big,’” the coach said. “Then they shocked me. I thought this would be a season where we would let what happens happen and share the experience and cherish it for a lifetime.”
But the Knights had other, much grander ideas. Still, even as they reached the city championship against Stuyvesant and LaGuardia, Colon had his doubts.
Until the pommel horse competition — A make-or-break moment for “the hardest event in gymnastics.”
“It’s easy to fall,” Colon said. “But we hit, and we hit big. None of my other championship teams have ever stayed on the pommel horse for the whole meet without one athlete falling.
“But we had a 100 percent hit rate, and it sealed the deal for the championship.”
It gave the Knights their first title since 2011 after knocking on the door the past several seasons.
“In my first year we lost (the city title) by a tenth of a point, and last year by four-tenths,” said senior Jermaine Da Costa, who will attend Temple or Pittsburgh next year. “So to finally get it was like the cherry on top of my senior year.”
Winning a city title help leave behind a legacy at Kennedy, at least according to Daniel Hamilton.
“I wanted to do something here before I left,” Hamilton said. “So now I can see the banner up there and feel great that I actually did accomplish something before I left high school.”
The Kennedy boys gymnastics team is a program that has thrived outside the spotlight of the more mainstream sports like basketball and football. So how does Colon recruit players to his program?
“I ask teachers to give me the kids who are not that athletic but have good grades, and I’ll turn them into champions,” Colon said. “I like having a kid who doesn’t have a shot. That kid who won’t make the football team or the basketball team. They’ll succeed in my program.”
So what drew Da Costa to gymnastics?
“When I was younger, I always used to do flips around the house,” Da Costa said. “And my mom would always say, ‘What are you doing?’ and I’d say, ‘I saw it on TV.’ I always wanted to do it, so when I came here, I found out there was a team, and I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t I join?’”
Hamilton caught the gymnastics bug after wandering into the gym two years ago.
“They had a competition one day when I was a sophomore and I thought that looked like fun so I joined,” he said.
Zedekian Rosario, a senior co-captain with Da Costa and Hamilton, viewed gymnastics as a life-changing sport.
“I saw gymnastics as a sport that could really help me boost my self-confidence,” said Rosario, who described winning the city championship as “freaking beautiful.”
“So when I picked this sport, it gave me the courage to go up there and do those crazy moves.”
Rosario will now use that courage in his post-high school plan of joining the U.S. Marines.
The Knights are a tight group, a family, who also excel in the classroom. That’s something, Colon says, that will benefit his athletes far more than a city title ever will.
“They’re (Advanced Placement) students and they all have excellent grades,” Colon said. “This group of kids is going to be very successful in life. My motto with these kids is, ‘I’ll take a diploma over a championship any day.’ I just want them to come out of this as good, responsible kids, and good human beings in society. I want them to get their education, respect their families and others and enjoy this experience.
“And if we win a championship, that’s just icing on the cake.”