Acro Spotlight of the Month - Sarah Thomas
posted on 07/06/2020

The Growth and Development Spotlight of the Month is Sarah Thomas. Sarah is the Head Coach of First Class Acrobatic Gymnastic Team. Sarah is the Junior Olympic Committee Chair and also the newly elected Program Committee Chair. Sarah will start her new position as Program Committee Chair on September 1, 2020.

How did you get started in Acrobatic Gymnastics?
I have to credit my mom for introducing me to Acro. She saw an ad in the local newspaper for the National Championships which were being held in Baltimore that year. She thought it was something that I might be interested in going to watch. I went one day and then ended up going back for the rest of the week. I thought it was really cool and took a bunch of pictures of all the elites. Then later on my mom pointed me towards a local Acro gym called Multi-Sport owned by Brian Payne. It’s the gym where I first met my co-coach Amy Grear and we were even partners in a trio for a year. I was in college when I started competing and was never at a super high level, but I quickly fell in love with this new style of gymnastics.

How did you start coaching?
My first team was called Alamo Flyers – it was the very first team in San Antonio, Texas and the basis for what would later on become AGSA. I was a Senior Account Executive in a marketing firm, and I was going to be transferred to Philadelphia. I decided I didn’t like Philly, so I saw an ad in a Acro newsletter advertising for an assistant coach and decided to quit my job and move to Texas. Just a few weeks after I arrived, the head coach moved back home and suddenly I was the head coach. I had 6 kids that first year – but we went to Nationals in 2002 and my little pair won level 6 through prelims and finals! The little top that won in that level 6 pair ended up going to Worlds 8 years later!

Who were your biggest influences in Acro then and now?
When I first started coaching I was obsessed with Elmwood Gymnastics! I loved everything about their skill technique, their dance - they were the entire package – and they won everything! I remember watching Mr. Videos of their routines over and over again to see how they did skills. I even modeled my first team leotard after theirs! I remember my second year as a coach I was in the elevator with Raisa, the coach of Elmwood, and she told me how great my team looked – I was so star struck, and I never forgot that! Now I always make it a point to encourage the new up and coming coaches because it meant so much to me way back then.

As an elite coach I would say my biggest influence is Neil Griffiths. I can’t say enough about how much he has taught me and supported me in my coaching journey. He’s given me tough love when I needed it and the confidence to be able to teach skills I never would have dreamed of when I first started coaching 20 years ago. I feel like the culmination of many things we had worked on for years came together this past season and it was so disappointing for me to not be able to see those visions come to life on the world stage.

What have been your biggest successes and disappointments?
It’s hard to pick but I think having my trio win the Senior National Title for the first time will always be a special moment – and being voted National Elite Coach of the Year by my peers. There have been many disappointments – having my groups passed over for World Team selection or having their selection questioned – sometimes I didn’t think I would survive the heartbreak – but I had to make it through for the kids and be strong for them even in the darkest of times for me personally. As a coach many times you can feel so alone because most people don’t understand how hard this job is. Depression and anxiety are very real in our profession and having a good support system is important.

What have been your favorite competitions you’ve attended?
I’ve always love GIAC – the organizers are always so welcoming and doing lots of extras for the kids. I also really enjoyed BIAC this past February because it was the last major competition we did before everything shut down, so I was so grateful to have had that experience as a bright spot for 2020. Honestly, Acro people are some of the nicest people in the world – they would give you the shirt off their back. Around the world the Acro community is a family and I love that about our sport.

What is it like to be married to another FIG judge who is also involved in Acro?
We don’t talk about Acro in the house. We had a point where the stress of Acro almost tore us apart, so we just don’t discuss it really. He has his Acro projects and I have mine and we just support each other because we understand the time and dedication it takes to be in this sport. Many people are surprised by this, but it works for us.

What do you think USA Acro needs to do to become more competitive internationally?
It’s difficult with the politics of our sport. We have a joke about the “North American 4th Place Club” because the USA (and now Canada) has had so many 4th place finishes at Worlds and I’m not sure it would have been the same result had we had another flag on our leotard. We as a country can’t make any mistakes if we even want to have a shot at a medal. I think our country has made great strides in performing “bigger skills” and pushing the envelope artistically. I personally have continued to pioneer and push the idea of club cooperation in sharing athletes to produce the best groups. Most of the successful countries in the sport have already been doing this for years. But our discipline also needs more financial support from USA Gymnastics if we are going to keep athletes training into their 20s which is true for many of the Senior Elite bases. We need funding similar to what the men’s artistic team receives. But without sponsorship money from the Olympic Committee it’s a difficult task.

You’ve always tried to be a voice for the Acro community – what are your goals moving forward in your new position?
I’ve never been afraid to ask the hard questions or push for transparency. Sometimes that draws negative attention especially when it comes from a woman, but I’d rather be deemed “opinionated” than having no opinion at all. I remember going toe to toe with Steve Penny in a meeting and although I can’t remember all the details of the conversation, what I do remember is feeling that at least I never backed down when he tried to bully the situation. No one is going to stand up for Acro except us – so we as the Program Committee have to continue to push for what we need or else it won’t happen. Short term I want to see changes at Nationals! I will die on my sword for a kiss and cry area and an event program for our kids! These are things our program can and should have and there’s no reason to deny simple requests like these! But overall I want to make sure our athletes and our discipline is being treated fairly and being fully supported by our federation.