By ROSA CIRIANNI, Morris Focus Contributor
What began as a recreational gymnastics program in the basement of St. Timothy’s Lutheran Church’s auxiliary building on Valley Road in Wayne in 1973, has morphed over the past five decades into a 15,500-square-foot center in Boonton to become the biggest — and arguably, the most successful USA Gymnastics Women’s Development Program in the Garden State.
The now-deceased Paul Bohrer, a former Marine with basic knowledge about gymnastics techniques, began the North Jersey School of Gymnastics in 1973 with his wife, Edith, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday, before launching their first North Stars competitive team.
In January 1979, the Bohrers hired Tony Gehman, fresh out of college as a graduate of the then East Stroudsburg State College in Pennsylvania. Gehman, who competed in the NCAA Division 2 men’s gymnastics program under Bruno Klaus, owner of the famed International Gymnastics Camp (IGC), stepped up to the challenge. He helped develop the gym’s first elite athlete, Joyce Wilborn, who went on to become the first Black female gymnast to medal at a major international competition for the U.S., according to Gehman.
He and his then newly-married wife, Paula, a former Towson University, Maryland women’s gymnastics team member, whom he met at IGC, purchased their first gymnastics center from the Bohrers and renamed it North Stars Gymnastics Academy. Their first gym was a 5,600 square-foot facility in Fairfield.
By 1987, the Gehmans purchased a second, larger facility in Parsippany and moved their competitive teams there. Tony Gehman quickly made his mark on the state, national and global gymnastics scenes by earning the New Jersey State Coach of the Year Award, USAG International Coach of the Year, United States Elite Coaches Association Coach of the Year, and the spot as head coach for the U.S. Pan American team.
A decade later, the Gehmans merged their Parsippany and Fairfield locations into one gym in Montville. After a five-year stint, they built their dream facility in 2002 in Boonton, which still serves as North Stars’ home today.
Fast forward to 2018, the Gehmans moved to Delaware to semi-retire. While Tony Gehman continues to offer gymnastics consults throughout the country, the Gehmans turned over the reins of their beloved program to one of their former star athletes. Ashley Umberger was named head team coach and CEO charged with ushering in the next era of North Stars. She knows what it takes to win big and move the gym forward in an ultra-competitive environment by building on its proven record and widening its appeal to welcome children of all ages and abilities, starting with recreational programs, summer camps, birthday parties and various competitive leagues.
As a two-time U.S. National Gymnastics Team member, who trained under the Gehmans, Umberger has competed nationally and internationally in Marseille, France, and the University of Georgia on a full athletic scholarship. She took her love for gymnastics back to her stomping ground as a coach working with the Gehmans, until taking over operations as a part owner six years ago.
The Pennsylvania native has been entrusted to carry on North Stars’ traditions and forge a new road ahead for the gym and its more than 375 athletes, representing 285 families. She said the next generations of North Stars will draw on the gym’s extraordinary past successes and will continue to blaze their magnificent trail.
The legacy continues
This year, North Stars celebrated its 50th anniversary with a banquet at the Knoll Country Club West in Boonton on Nov. 24, where more than 125 people attended including current athletes and their families, coaches, academic members and staff, and many of its renowned alumni, professional affiliates and former trainers.
Several alumni, who could not be present, sent congratulatory video messages to the group including Li Li Leung, president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body. She and other high-profile alumni delivered heartfelt and inspiring speeches about their experiences training and competing on behalf of North Stars and how it positively impacted them as developing young women, college athletes, adults and even now in their professional careers.
North Stars still shines in the gymnastics world with state, regional and national medalists, NCAA recruits earning scholarships, and two current athletes who have competed on the international stage. The USAG state chapter awarded Tony and Paula Gehman with the New Jersey Gymnastics Hall of Fame award earlier this year, and the club’s USAG Women’s Development Program Level 10 team defended its state championship title for the twelfth consecutive time.
“Paula and I are thrilled to be celebrating 50 years of excellence at North Stars Gymnastics. We are grateful to have been able to combine our love of teaching with our passion for gymnastics and actually call it our livelihood,” said Tony Gehman. “We are also thankful for the dedicated work of all our staff members, past and present. Of course, without the talented athletes, none of this would have occurred.
“The most important contribution we feel the gym has made is that children get to develop tools that will absolutely help them grow into strong adult women who can deal with adversity and be successful.”
North Stars’ 10 full-time and eight part-time coaches are committed and passionate about what they do. They work year-round as a cohesive team to implement a carefully planned and time-tested training regimen designed to boost each athlete’s ability so they can reach —- and in most cases, surpass their performance goals.
To date, North Stars has had 36 athletes qualify elite, including two members of the upcoming Class of 2024, Olivia Kelly and Alana Walker, who represent the nations of Barbados and Jamaica, respectively. Their names were added to an elite wall of fame of red stars at the gym. In 2021, Walker took first place for her age group at the U.S. Women’s Development Program Level 10 national meet and earned the all-around Bronze medal at the Junior Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. She is verbally committed to Stanford University. Team Barbados’ Kelly, who became the first North Stars gymnast to compete at the World Gymnastics Championships in 2022 and 2023, is set to compete for the University of Missouri.
“North Stars Gymnastics Academy’s history is extraordinary and its future is incredibly promising. I attribute the club’s storied success to the Bohrers, who started this gym, and the vision of the Gehmans, who undeniably shaped it into what it is today. I am honored to continue its great legacy as its leader,” said Umberger. “Our top-notch coaches, staff, athletes, and the support of their families, makes North Stars truly an outstanding place. We are all working to make North Stars’ next chapter just as bright.”
North Stars Gymnastics has had athletes medal at the USA Championships, Goodwill Games, Pan American Games, and Pacific Alliance Championships as well as competitions in France, South Korea, England, Russia, Bulgaria, Colombia, Brazil, Jamaica, China, Canada, Puerto Rico, Bahamas, Cuba, U.S. Olympic Trials and more. Over the past half-century, more than 100 North Stars also have secured NCAA athletic scholarships and spots on Ivy League university teams including:
- Elaine Alfano, University of Utah’s first gymnast to become a three-time consecutive NCAA vault champion.
- Alicia Boren, University of Florida Gators’ 2016-2019 alumni, who earned the 2019 NCAA Division 1 National Floor Exercise title. Boren also became the first North Stars gymnast to win four consecutive all-around champion U.S. Women’s Development Program Level 10 titles, among other accolades.
- Rachel Lukacs won three all-around USAG Level 10 national titles and became the Nastia Cup champion in 2016. She accepted a full scholarship to compete for the University of Georgia from 2019-2022.
U.S.A. Women’s Gymnastics National Team members
North Stars Gymnastics Academy has qualified nine athletes onto the U.S. National Women’s Gymnastics Team, many with notable accomplishments — some of which include:
• Alyssa Beckerman– World Team Trials third place all-around in Kansas City in 1999, third all-around at the 2000 U.S. Classic in Oklahoma. She later went on to compete on full scholarship for UCLA.
• Nicole Kilpatrick -Gold medalist at the Pan American Championships in Colombia. She finished her gymnastics career on full scholarship at Utah State University, where she scored a 9.925 on vault at the Western Gymnastics Conference, marking the school’s second-best score in its history at the time.
• Li Li Leung -Perhaps, one of the most prominent alumni, Leung, a former University of Michigan gymnastics team member, went on to serve as the vice president of the National Basketball Association (NBA). In 2019, she became president and CEO of USA Gymnastics.
• Michelle Manzolillo– Member of the U.S.A. national gold medal team at the Junior Pan American Artistic Gymnastics Championships in 1988 in Puerto Rico. She later competed on full scholarship for Penn State.
• Ashley (Miller) Umberger-North Stars Head Coach, CEO and part owner since 2018, was a two-time U.S.A. National Gymnastics Team member and gold medalist on floor exercise at the U.S. Classic in 1997. Her international experience includes competing in Marseille, France. Later, she went on to compete on full athletic scholarship at the University of Georgia.
• Traci (Sommer) Stanard -Won the American Classic and qualified for the 1992 U.S. Olympic trials and medaled in both the Golden Sands, Bulgaria, and the Pacific Alliance, South Korea meet before accepting a full athletic scholarship at the University of Utah. Traci now works with the North Stars athletes, coaches parents and other athletes of all ages throughout the nation, concerning wellness, mental health, performance, and sports nutrition through her company, Aspire Performance.
• Joyce Wilborn– North Stars’ first elite who won bronze on vault at the 1986 Goodwill Games. She was the only medalist from a non-Soviet or Eastern Bloc country to medal in the Pacific Alliance Championship in China. She also medaled in Moscow News, a former major international invitational in Russia. She scored three perfect 10s at the U.S. Olympic Festival in 1987.
• Anne (Woynerowski) Meade-First U.S. female gymnast to ever perform a layout 1-1/2 twist Yurchenko vault and all-around USA Gymnastics Jr. International champion, Pan American Games gold medalist, and Junior Pacific Alliance gold medalist. She went on to compete on full athletic scholarship at the University of New Hampshire and later served as assistant coach at Pittsburgh and Rutgers universities.
North Stars’ homeschool program
One of the most sophisticated of its kind, North Stars consulted with coaches throughout the nation and designed an in-house, invitation-only homeschool training program in 2009 to maximize its athletic talent in the best overall atmosphere. It began with just nine students and today has grown to more than 25 athletes, ranging from third to 12th grade.
Keeping education a priority for its athletes, North Stars maintains a dedicated space and time for athletes so they can focus on their studies every weekday during the school year, with an abbreviated summer schedule. The program is led by the same homeschool director/administrator since its inception, including an experienced math teacher. The administrator oversees education plans, communicates with parents, supports students academically and proctors exams.
This modern-day homeschool training program offers a comprehensive approach to provide balance and ensure athletes stay well-rounded and in the best physical condition possible while keeping their studies on point. Their training also incorporates yoga/Pilates, meditation, team-bonding activities, outdoor training in the summer, and dance/ballet basics.
Special annual events
The public is invited to attend one of North Stars’ upcoming home meets for a close-up view of entertaining and high-spirited competitions at 91 Fulton Street, Boonton.
• The Garden State Classic – This annual meet kicks off every New Year since 1986 at North Stars. It is slated for January 5-7. Level 10s open the weekend on Friday night.
• March Madness – Held annually since 2015, it is scheduled March 8-10.