“In 1975, by night, I coached with Joe at Lovett high school in Atlanta when the private gym club market started taking off. By day, I worked at Gwinnett Gym Center, owned by my former teammate Dan Thaxton. From there, I went to the Atlanta School of Gymnastics where another former UGA teammate, Gene Watson, joined me and we began our boys’ program.”
In those days, gymnastics training occurred in what were called classes rather than levels. Mike started with younger boys aged 6 to 10 in classes 1 – 4, class 1 being the most advanced.
Now, gymnasts are grouped into levels from 1 – 10, with 10 as the most advanced before Elite. When word got around that Mike was coaching, he began to work with older boys, ages 13 to 17, some of whom he recruited from local high schools.
At around the same time, Mike met Gary Heartsfield who was regional sales manager for AMF gymnastics equipment (which later became AAI). Gary brought Mike in to install wood floor plates in Chamblee High School. “I made $80 in 3 hours that day and thought it was the best thing that had ever happened to me.” After a few successful and enthusiastic installs Gary asked Mike to become an AMF dealer; he went on to sell mats and install equipment all over the Southeast.
“I was hooked. From then on, I ate, slept and breathed gymnastics. I worked as an AMF dealer during the day. Then after, I coached gymnastics for 4 hours a night and still coached on the weekend. My passions were coaching, selling and learning to make gymnastics equipment.”
“The first piece of equipment I ever did was a gymnastics beam cover. It was constructed from vinyl I’d gotten at a fabric store. My mom sewed on the ends. The first piece of equipment I ever designed was The Mushroom™.”
“I’d seen a film of Russian gymnasts training pommel horse techniques on something that looked like a mushroom. I could see the benefit of first learning to do circles on a smaller, rounder piece of equipment. I wanted something like that for my boys, so I found an old volley ball post base behind Westminster School that I took to my dad’s metal shop. We welded on some legs, with feet; rustled up some old foam from the gym; sewed on a piece of vinyl from the fabric store and The Mushroom™ was born!”
“Since then, I’ve tweaked the configuration a bit, but it’s still basically the same design from 30 years ago. I trademarked the name “The Mushroom” and GMR became the first company to make and sell the product in the US — at first, for a little while, production of the covers was based out of my apartment; the metal was welded in my dad’s sheet metal shop.”
“GMR Gymnastics Sales, the company, began with $150 in cash and a concrete drill— at the time, meeting the bare and basic requirements of $600 in assets for incorporating in the state of Georgia. That’s how the legal side of things got started.”
“Meanwhile, my boys were doing great in competition! As a gymnast, I was not very good on the pommel horse, but I was deadset on being good at coaching it. The Atlanta Gym Flairs and I traveled all over the country competing in meets. I was doing clinics. After meets, I’d set up some Mushrooms™ for the boys to use to workout. I sold loads of Mushrooms™ to their coaches when they saw go to town. Back then, the mushroom wasn’t an event for the younger boys like it is now.”
“I was lucky to work with some really talented athletes who won almost every meet they went to for their age group. Forgive me for bragging a bit, but those boys worked hard — some of them, including my son Che and his best friends Jody, and Alex, whom I coached from ages 6 to 18, worked 6 days a week!”
“Our success on the pommel horse, I credit to my gymnasts’ early basics on The Mushroom™. Some of the older boys could barely swing pommel horse; but the younger boys on The Mushroom™ blew everyone’s mind. Che started on it at 6 years old. In college, at University of Nebraska, Che went on to become 1992 NCAA Pommel Horse Champion thanks to that thing — along with his talent, grit and determination.”
“Che, Jody Newman and Alex Scott, all Class 1 gymnasts, stayed with me the entire time before going off to college where they went on to do big things. The Atlanta Gym Flairs rocked the National Boys Invitational, which was the big meet at the time. Alex also did well in gymnastics at Michigan State. Jody Newman became NCAA Floor Exercise champion at Arizona State in 1993 and now owns Premier Gymnastics in Omaha, NE.”
“Olympic gymnast (1988) Kevin Davis tells the story that a high school coach saw him tumbling and told him he should get into gymnastics, so he ended up at Atlanta School of Gymnastics where he says I was his very first coach. I didn’t work with him for more than few classes, though. My friend Gene Watson was his coach.”
“I did make a few rookie coaching mistakes along the way, though. An obvious flub, in hindsight was, with Patrick Kirksey, who was on my team at ASG. When he said he didn’t want to do giants on the high bar, I kicked him off the team. I handled it all wrong. Clearly a misstep, as Patrick went on to become NCAA High Bar and All-Around Champion, as well as a member of the World Championship team. You live and learn, I guess,” Mike laughs.
While living and learning as a coach and building his gymnastics equipment business, Mike also worked to build gymnastics as a sport in the state of Georgia and in his southeastern region: Region 8.
With the help of his (later) wife and business partner, Kappy Bowers, Mike started the USGF program (United States Gymnastics Federation) for boys in Georgia because “there was nothing going on.”
He was the first state director, though, as he tells it, “Kappy was the ghost organizer. Whatever needed doing, she did it. She did all the work. Her background was as a costume designer and production stage manager in the theater, so she was an organizing powerhouse. She made me look good.”
Together, Mike and Kappy held the first Region 8 ‘Regionals’ meet with the help of Ron Clemmer of Clemmer’s in Charlotte, North Carolina. Mike, Kappy and Ron also held the first inter-state competition. When the regional meet grew big enough to require a larger venue, they moved the Region 8 meet to Charlotte where GMR supplied the equipment. By 1979, gymnastics had really begun to take off with gymnastics gyms and clubs popping up all around the country.