The Canton High School gymnastics team’s 2023-24 season could have tumbled into a chaotic abyss following the unexpected death of legendary coach John Cunningham on Oct. 21 — just over a week before the squad’s first official practice.
After all, qualified coaches for the specialized sport of gymnastics are rare commodities.
But three longtime acquaintances of the beloved Cunningham — all of whom have exemplary coaching resumes — in coordination with Canton High School Athletic Director Kristen Farkas, stepped up to save the day.
The minute she learned Cunningham was hospitalized after suffering a major stroke a week before his death, current Salem High School gymnastics coach (and former Canton gymnast and assistant coach) Janelle Maryanski took action, developing a plan she hoped would help Canton’s gymnastics team persevere through an unthinkable tragedy.
“When I got the call that John was in the hospital, I immediately drew up a plan and contacted Kristen,” Maryanski said. “I asked her, ‘Do you want to hear my plan?’ And she said, ‘Yes, please!'”
The plan included beyond-the-call-of-duty sacrifices from Maryanski, former Salem gymnastics coach Dana Driscoll and Judi Hudak, Maryanski’s mom, who has vast experience in gymnastics training.
“I called Dana, my mom and a bunch of former gymnasts and asked them: ‘Who wants in?’,” Maryanski explained.
Let’s get to work
Maryanski, Driscoll and Hudak sat down with a calendar and Canton and Salem’s 2023-24 schedule and worked out the logistics.
“We basically said, ‘OK, I’ll be at Salem’s practice this day, you can run Canton’s practice this day’ … and we figured it out for the entire season,” Maryanski said. “This was before John had passed away, but we knew there was a chance he might not be able to coach this season.
“Dana is a gymnastics judge, but she agreed not to pick up any additional meets than what she already had and my mom agreed immediately to jump in and help.”
Maryanski said the under-difficult-circumstances transition will be made easier given the three coaches’ familiarity with the Canton gymnasts.
Familiarity will help
“I saw a lot of them over the summer at Eurostars (training center) and all three (P-CEP) teams practice in the same room at Plymouth High School, so I already knew a lot of the girls, which will help.
“The Canton gymnasts’ parents are super-appreciative of what we’re doing, but we all knew and loved J.C. so well, we knew what had to be done. J.C. was like family to me.”
At minimum the early portion of the upcoming season will be an emotional rollercoaster — for the gymnasts and coaches — Maryanski admitted.
“I met with the Canton girls Monday, two days after J.C. had passed, and they weren’t doing well and I wasn’t doing well, obviously,” she said. “I’m sure the first practice is going to be really hard, not seeing him in the room, so we’ll start out slow.
The first meet will be hard; there’s going to be a lot of difficult times, but we’re going to do our best to get through this.
“I coached with and competed for J.C. for so long that our styles are very similar. Sometimes I don’t know whether a coaching technique was my original idea or I picked it up from him.”
Maryanski smiled at the memory of her former mentor.
Without question, Cunningham is looking down at his former gymnast and assistant coach and smiling — more proud of her than if she had scored a perfect 10 on the vault.
Ed Wright can be reached at 734-664-4657 or firstname.lastname@example.org.