Former HISD teacher Culhane inducted into USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame

By JACK MARRION    Sun Aug 21, 2011

Jim Culhane is an Olympian, a former gymnastics academy owner, a coach to hundreds of young gymnasts, even a record-breaking skydiver. As of Aug. 19 the Tomball resident can add another distinction to his unique and remarkable catalog of achievements.

Culhane was part of a class of seven inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the USA Gymnastics National Congress and Trade Show in St. Paul, Minn. The event is held in conjunction with the VISA Championships.

Culhane, who turned 69 on Aug. 13, was inducted alongside Olympic gymnasts Tamara Levinson, Kristen Maloney, Elise Ray, Chelle Stack, coach Stacy Maloney and six-time world tumbling champion Jill Hollembeak.

“I am very proud and very honored to be selected and inducted,” Culhane said. “I look the accomplishments of many of my fellow inductees and there are a lot of gold medals internationally and nationally. I feel like I’m pretty lucky to be in this group. There are not many medals in my background.”

Though his trophy case might not overflow Culhane was a standout gymnast, leading Penn State University to the NCAA Division I Championship in 1965 and earning a place on the U.S. National Team from 1965-75. He was selected for a coveted spot on the 1972 Olympic team, contributing to a 10th-place finish by the United States in Munich.

Culhane’s most significant role in gymnastics has come as a coach. He owned Jim Culhane Gymnastics in the Champions area from 1981-1996, producing four U.S. National Team members and two Olympians including 2008 Olympic medalist Jonathan Horton.

Fleming Middle School, a Houston Independent School District campus, hired Culhane to direct its boys gymnastics club in 1981, a position he held for 26 years. Culhane currently works with area pole vaulters during evenings at Texas Star Gymnastics in Tomball, for which he also coached boys gymnastics beginning in 1996.

Texas Star Gymnastics owner Nancy Gomez said she is proud to see Culhane honored for his dedication to the sport.

“We were very excited,” Gomez said. “It was great news from USA Gymnastics. This is a great time for him. He’s done a lot for gymnastics, for the United States and for kids. He’s taught a lot of kids that have received college scholarships and done very well.”

From Rochester to State College

Culhane’s athletic inspiration can be traced to a Wheaties box. As a teenager in Rochester, N.Y., in 1958 he saw two-time Olympic gold medalist pole vaulter Bob Richards pictured on the front on the cereal container and set a goal for himself.

“I said ‘I’m going to do that, become a pole vaulter in the Olympics,’” Culhane said. “I had no formal training, just playing around with stick jumping, vaulting creeks. My pole vaulting coach had me go to a gymnastics coach to learn to do a handstand. That’s where it took off.”

Culhane competed in the pole vault through high school but added gymnastics to his sporting endeavors by sophomore year. He won the novice sectional championship and followed with sectional titles in the advanced division as a junior and senior.

Culhane credits John Marshall High School coach Gene Kolackie and trainer Jim Farkas at Rochester Labor Lyceum with his development as a young gymnast. He was skilled enough to earn a place on NCAA power Penn State’s men’s squad.

Coached by Gene Wettstone and Jack Biesterfeld the Nittany Lions claimed the Division I national title during Culhane’s senior year.

“I was lucky enough to get accepted into Penn State and we won the championship,” Culhane said. “I had a great coach at Penn State. I qualified for the national team my senior year in college and I was offered a graduate assistantship the following year.”

Culhane was an assistant coach at Southern Connecticut State University for three years before joining the U.S. Army. He served as assistant coach at the U.S. Military from 1969-71, continuing to train on his own.

He maintained ties to Penn State, competing there in a dual meet in 1970 as the U.S. took on Russia. Culhane was later recognized on the university’s Gymnastics Wall of Honor.

Penn State was also the site of Culhane’s most widely known floor routine.

“In 1974 somebody streaked the Academy Awards,” Culhane said. “Streaking was very popular. I was at Penn State, which was hosting the NCAA Division I Championships. Somebody said ‘you should streak the finals.’ Somebody put $25 on it, another guy put $10 and by the end of the night was up to $300 or $400.”

Following a reunion photo with former Nittany Lions teammates Culhane said he reappeared on the main mat nude.

“I walked on the floor and 7,000 people were applauding,” Culhane said, adding he snuck back into the facility following his stunt and watched the rest of the meet. “I did a routine, ran across the emblem in the middle of the floor and ran out the door.”

A dream realized

While some of Culhane’s more free-spirited adventures have earned him notoriety he was among the nation’s elite male gymnasts for a time during his 19 years as a competitor. He was the North American Champion on 1966 and finished seventh in the all-around standings at the 1968 Olympic Trials.

Culhane was selected to represent the U.S. at the 1971 Pan American Games in Columbia, coached by Armando Vega and managed by Dick Aaronson. In 1972 he finally fulfilled his Olympic aspirations.

“Two years after leaving the Army I was training by myself and made the 1972 Olympic team, a goal I set 20 years previously,” Culhane said. “I wanted to go to the Olympics so badly. You could say I’m a slow learner but a hard worker.”

Culhane qualified sixth to earn a spot at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, competing for coach Able Grossfeld and manager Eric Hughes. The oldest member of the team at age 30, Culhane finished 54th in the men’s horse vault and 63rd on the pommel horse out of more than 100 competitors. Japan, the Soviet Union and East Germany won the men’s gymnastics team medals.

“I hadn’t been to that many international meets,” Culhane said. “Fortunately I made 11 out of 12 routines. I was just happy to be competing. Just being a part of the Olympics was a pretty satisfying occasion. It was wonderful to see the village and see some of the other competitions.”

As a gymnast Culhane’s best event was the pommel horse, in which he placed second at the U.S. Championships in 1971 and 1973. One of his finest moments came in 1973, when he outperformed Hungarian star Zoltan Magyar in the event.

“It’s not a fun event to do until you get to a certain degree of difficulty,” Culhane said. “It was an event that was weak for several competitors. I thought it would help me with my all-around. Back then everybody had to do all-around.”

Mentoring the next masters

Following more than a decade as a member of the U.S. National Team, Culhane found a career in the sport. He filled temporary positions as women’s head coach at East Stroudsburg State and California State-Northridge before finding his way to Houston in late 1979.

Culhane coached at Sundance Athletic Club, owned by Pat Alexander, starting a boys team that placed five athletes in the top 10 in the all-around at its first state meet. After a brief stint with Gym-An-I Gymnastics he had the opportunity to open his own gym in 1981, the same year he was hired to start the boys gymnastics program at Fleming Middle School.

“I had my own gym from 1981-96,” Culhane said. “I was teaching full time and trying to run my gym at the same time, working 80-100 hours a week. Finally in 1996 I sold my gym and started working for Texas Star a few hours a week.”

While he was in business Culhane produced several college gymnasts and a few national elite. Students Kerry Houston and Brian Yee both went to the University of Minnesota and were members of the Junior and Senior National Team. Josh Stein was a member of Culhane’s team from 1983-84 and eventually made the 1996 Olympic Team.

Culhane’s most notable pupil is Horton, the former University of Oklahoma standout who was named USA Gymnastics Men’s Athlete of the Year in 2008 after earning the silver medal on the horizontal bar in Beijing. Horton was trained by Culhane from ages 7-10, advancing through Level 6.

Including his recent Hall of Fame induction Culhane has been honored twice by USA Gymnastics, also receiving the Robert Cowan Award in 1991 for Outstanding Contribution to Region III Gymnastics.

Culhane has taught part-time at Texas Star for 15 years, coaching primarily Level 1-2 boys gymnastics. “I’ve had this building for 11 years,” Gomez said. “He was with me when I built this. He does a lot of our mats and stuff too. He’s great with the equipment.”

This past year he has taught a class for pole vaulters, focused on developing strength and spatial awareness. Two of his students are recent state champions – Tomball’s Brittany Wooten and Spring’s Reese Watson.

“There are several other kids who really talented and very capable,” Culhane said. “I hope what I’m doing for them will help them be successful in vaulting.”

Continuing to soar

Age has not slowed Culhane, who still has the strength to demonstrate some of his training techniques. In his spare time he enjoys skydiving, an activity he began even during his competitive career.

“He’s had quite the life, that’s for sure,” Gomez said. “He’s one of our more colorful athletes on the national scene.”

Known for athletic prowess as well as a few noteworthy stunts in his younger days Culhane earned a little more notoriety when he broke the skydiving world record for most skydivers over 60 in mid-air formation. Culhane has since been a part of three more record-breaking dives, though some have come with a price.

“I’ve been trying to keep myself out of the hospital,” Culhane said. “I’ve been three times in the last nine years. Parachutes are very safe when you fly them correctly. When you make mistakes they can bite you. I had a lumbar injury in 2003, a cracked pelvis in 2006 and broke my femur in 2009. I’m hoping like mad that 2012 will be good to me.”

Highlighted by a Hall of Fame induction in his devoted sport, 2011 will be difficult to follow.