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Niemi turned passion of gymnastics into Hall of Fame career

Steve Jones
Sports writer
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Posted 7/20/22

Phyllis R. Niemi didn’t get involved with gymnastics until she was a teacher in Rome, but a late start turned into a career that earned her a spot in the Rome Sports Hall of Fame. Niemi was born in …

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Niemi turned passion of gymnastics into Hall of Fame career

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Phyllis R. Niemi didn’t get involved with gymnastics until she was a teacher in Rome, but a late start turned into a career that earned her a spot in the Rome Sports Hall of Fame.

Niemi was born in 1947 and graduated from Croton-Harmon High School in 1965. She played field hockey, basketball and softball. She went on to attend SUNY Cortland and after she graduated she was hired to work in the Rome City School District as an elementary school physical education teacher.

“I was teaching at Strough Junior High” in the early 1970s, she said, and one year it was the site of the Section III girls high school gymnastics championship. Niemi, who didn’t have gymnastics as an option for participation during her own secondary school education, checked it out. “I loved watching gymnastics. We were teaching it but these were the higher level athletes in the Section.” Also there was Jill Brodock Henderson, who was involved in gymnastics at the Rome YMCA. It was through her that Niemi began to volunteer for the Y’s gymnastics program.

Also being recognized by the Hall of Fame in the Class of 2020 for a lifetime of excellence are football star Calvin Griggs, the late Mike Orbinati, an outstanding player and coach; hockey star JR Purrington, the late Joseph A. Ryan Jr., who is being inducted as a contributor and three-sport standout Randy J. Williams.

Niemi and Brodock Henderson (Rome Sports Hall of Fame Class of 1995) went on to open Valley Gymnastics in 1976.

When they started Valley, the RFA gymnastics program was coached by Barb Smith. A few years after Smith retired, the position opened again and Niemi put her name in for the job. “Section III girls gymnastics was a very strong program,” Niemi said. There were about a dozen schools competing. And RFA had a number of athletes at Valley, so she already knew some of the students she’d soon be coaching. “That’s a great program,” she said of RFA.

In 1984 Niemi was named RFA’s varsity gymnastics coach, a job she’d have for 13 years. She compiled a record of 98-61, with a 51-7 league record. She led the team to seven league titles, seven undefeated seasons and coached 23 individual Section III champions. She also coached the Central Empire State Games team for a decade.

Why was RFA so good in her time at the head of the program? “One is the quality of the athletes. We had some absolutely outstanding athletes who were interested in gymnastics,” she said. “They had the skills, the mind set and the determination.” Some were at Valley for year-round training, she noted. “Everybody stepped up and excelled.” And, she added, “the kids would help one another.” They encouraged each other and when one would have success it would prompt others to try what they saw from their teammates.

She said her goal was to “love what you do. I wanted to give to the gymnasts the very best.” She added, “It was a very positive environment.” And winning only built momentum, she said. “If you begin to experience success, others become more interested and the whole program benefits and grows.”

Niemi said of coaching: “I liked working with the kids. I loved seeing the success. I loved seeing them working together. It’s about the kids, the athletes.”

Though Niemi participated in several other sports, she said there were things she was able to take from her experiences and apply to gymnastics. The main thing: a winning attitude. “You have to train and be willing to give your time and full effort. You have to understand things won’t always turn out how you want it but you continue to train and continue to improve.” Athletes then didn’t have “today’s ability … to be physically fit and train. It has really improved the athletes’ ability.”

After she retired from the school district, Niemi continued to be a certified gymnastics official. She is a judge for USA Gymnastics in both New York and Florida.

After starting Valley, the private gym required her and Brodock Henderson to know the rules, which made them good as officials, and that helped prepare the athletes, she noted. “In gymnastics you’re judged on four events and each one has specific rules. The more we knew the more we can help the kids. And I’m still judging today.” She added, “Coaching goes hand-in-hand with judging. If we’re training, we know what has value.” Then, she said, a coach can stress those values to the athletes.

Of being a judge, she said, “I like it. We’ve met so many people. We’ve seen so many fine athletes. It’s just an activity that I’ve enjoyed and will continue to do until I can’t do a good job.”

When Niemi got the word that she was to be inducted into the Rome Sports Hall of Fame, she said, “I was thrilled.” She read the list of past inductees. “The number of people with whom I worked as a young teacher. I said, ‘Wow, these were the people who were outstanding at the time.’ What a honor to be recognized with them. It’s fantastic.”

Niemi said she didn’t think it was a specific factor or achievement that put her in the Hall. “I think it’s a lot of the little pieces. One thing that I’ve always tried to do … you learn so much about how people learn and develop. As a teacher and coach you want your athletes to be successful. You want them to like what they are doing, to grow as a person.” She added, “It’s not me telling you what to do. It’s you growing as a person and I’m helping you get there.”

There will be a reception for inductees and other award winners at the Rome Sports Hall of Fame from 2-3:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 31. The Rome Sports Hall of Fame is located to the right of Erie Canal Village and the parking is to the right of the building and the entrance is in the front facing the Village. Extra parking is will be available in the Village parking lot.

The annual induction awards banquet will be held Sunday, July 31, at the Vernon Downs Casino and Hotel starting at 5:30 p.m. The tickets are $35 each. Tickets for children 12 and under are $15. Tickets may be purchased at Rome Sports Hall of Fame, 5790 Rome New London Road. The museum is open Wednesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. The deadline to purchase tickets is Sunday, July 24.

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