Paul Hunt’s mission: Keep the fun in gymnastics
Jul 31, 2018 03:01PM
● By Jana Klopsch
Paul Hunt performs his signature balance beam move – splits under the beam.
By Bob Bedore | [email protected]
In 1988, during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, a plan was put together to have a joint gymnastics summit – a precursor to the Olympics to come. And while the Russians proved to be the better team, one American man turned heads and brought smiles from both sides, all while wearing a skirted leotard.
Paul Hunt's comedy gymnastic routines on the floor, balance beam, and uneven parallel bars became the hit of the ABC television broadcast and, though it can’t be proved, might have just melted the Cold War and brought all sides together in laughter.
“So much of the coaching and teaching of gymnastics at that time was so strict and ridgid,” Paul said, sitting in the bleachers of the academy that bears his name in Midvale. “I just wanted to remind them all that gymnastics is fun. There’s joy in doing this.”
And joy is exactly what Paul (or Pauline, or Paulette, or Pauletta depending on his mood) has brought to everyone who has seen his routines. Videos of his performances throughout the years have millions of views. Go on, watch them for yourself. Then come back and finish the story. (On YouTube or Google: 1988 Paul Hunt gymnastics comedy floor exercise or 1988 Paul Hunt gymnastics comedy beam routine.)
From the dazzling display of athleticism to the side-spitting comedy, Paul is obviously a one of a kind performer. And it becomes obvious that behind the laughs is a serious gymnast.
The power behind the clown
Paul first turned his eyes to the circus at 8 years old. He tried to emulate what he saw on TV by building a tightrope and trapeze in his backyard. His mom saw this and came up with a plan.
“She said, if you’re going to go out there and practice things, you’re not going to get hurt. I’m putting you in gymnastics,” Paul said and reflected with a smile about his mom’s support.
Paul did both circus arts and gymnastics for a while, but it was gymnastics that won out. And through it all he grew his love for teaching. Even early on he was teaching the neighborhood kids on his homemade circus equipment. Later, Paul taught gymnastics through high school to help pay for his own training.
As a competitor, Paul rose through the ranks quickly and in 1971 and 1973 was the Big Ten individual champion in the floor exercise for the University of Illinois. In 1972, Paul was U.S. National Floor Champion.
Fun with the flaws
But how does one go from being a highly ranked athlete to making people laugh with his routines? For Paul, like most things in his life, it started with teaching.
“I was always trying to show my students what they were doing wrong,” explained Hunt. “And this was before we had easy access to video, so the only way to show them was to do it like them. I’d do a flip with my legs wrong as an example to them, and after a while I started thinking about doing full routines that could point out the flaws.”
And these routines started to become a big hit. It wasn’t long before the meets were using Paul’s unique gift to help fill in the time it took to tabulate the scoring.
“This was also a time when it took a lot of running around to gather scores and get them posted. I would go out and do a little routine to keep the crowd interested,” said Hunt. This included the 1983 championships held at the University of Utah and the 1988 Summit mentioned above.
Of all the moves he does, one of the most famous is the splits performed under the balance beam.
“One day a student was slipping off the beam, and you get docked points for touching the floor. They were holding on tight and I started thinking, what could you do if you were in that position. So, I thought I’d try the splits,” Hunt said.
The routines brought him a certain amount of notoriety within the gymnastics world, but that wasn’t what really interested him. A few minutes with Paul and you realize that he is as humble as he is talented. What Paul does he does to show why he loves the sport. And he hopes to keep that love flowing through everyone he meets.
Training the next generation
Paul’s comedy routines had a short life. A hip replacement brought an end to the performances, but that really didn’t bother him. Paul had always wanted to be a teacher, so when he moved to Utah in 1974, he started teaching right away.
In 1988 he opened Hunt’s Gymnastics Academy and it has stayed in the same building since then. He enjoys teaching all ages and abilities and considers gymnastics a good baseline sport for any athlete.
“Gymnastics is a sport many countries teach before moving on to other sports,” Hunt said. “It is a sport that teaches you patience and perseverance. You’re not going to get things right the first time in gymnastics. You are going to fail a lot before you succeed.”
Paul teaches with his daughter, Jessica, and she has the same humble attitude as her father.
“We’re not the biggest academy in Utah. In fact, we’re one of the smaller ones,” she said. “We are the little mom and pop store of gymnastics. But by doing that we feel that we get to know each of our students personally and we can give them a lot of attention that way. No one falls through the cracks.”
Small or not, the Hunt Academy was the home to five of the six team members that represented Utah in regional competition. The team took first place in April of this year, something that hasn’t happened in many years.
Though he no longer puts on the skirted leotard for thousands of fans, Paul still does what he’s always wanted to do. He brings smiles to faces, teaches a sport he’s put his life and love into, and makes sure that gymnastics, done the right way, lives on.
Now seriously, if you haven’t watched the videos go do it now.