‘Virtual Stars,’ a creation of ex-Glenbard West star and St. Charles coach, could be option for gymnasts hoping to compete

Glenbard West seniors Haley Trippel and Anna Diab were especially grateful for the presence of parents at the girls gymnastics competition season opener Nov. 18.

In this abbreviated high school sports season with few, if any, spectators because of the COVID-19 pandemic, their mothers were among viewers of the Hilltoppers’ varsity intrasquad meet.

“It was live on Zoom so the parents could watch at home so I think (they) really liked it. It was just nice to be able to wear the (competition) leotards and to be able to show what we’ve worked on all summer,” Trippel said.

“I think we’d all prefer to have an in-person meet but under the circumstances, an online meet is pretty good and I’ll be happy to have it.”

Virtual meets can be a viable, and perhaps the only, option as gymnasts and other winter sports athletes patiently hope to begin action in January.

Virtual Stars, created by 1998 Glenbard West graduate Josh Levin and Robert Davis, are among sites teams could use instead of live competition restricted by state or school district policies, such as being in different conferences or not within permitted COVID-19 competition region.

Opponents could remain separated at their gyms, yet judges could score routines live from one site and the others online or score all routines from a third remote location.

“I’d like having regular meets better but if it’s a way to compete then I’m glad we’ll do those,” Diab said. “It’s probably something to get used to, but I think we’ll probably be less nervous.”

In 2016, Virtual Stars began hosting meets with the primary purpose of helping college gymnastics club teams reduce travel and lodging expenses. If teams pay for judges and awards, Levin said live meets through Virtual Stars would only cost a couple of dollars per routine.

Levin, the state all-around and pommel horse champion for Glenbard West’s 1996 championship team, is head coach for the Northern Illinois University men’s club team and coaches boys teams at St. Charles Gymnastics Academy. Davis competes post-college with the Arizona State University men’s club team and lived in Buffalo Grove during sixth grade.

“Pretty much the goal was competition without borders,” Levin said. “It’s very funny. I’ve never met Robert in person, but we talk every day virtually.”

The IHSA season began as scheduled Nov. 16 but was interrupted when state-wide Tier 3 COVID-19 restrictions took effect Nov. 20. At the time, teams needed six meets to be eligible for postseason competition, and the IHSA counted virtual meets if IHSA-registered judges and its scoring system were used.

Glenbard West coach Carlos Fuentes said the Hilltoppers are considering virtual meets at least for out-of-region teams, such as New Trier and the Prairie Ridge and Lincoln-Way co-ops. Routines would be streamed live but also simultaneously recorded for judges to eliminate possible transmission glitches.

“Zoom is for the fans, but we’ll also record routines separately and email those immediately through Google Drive,” Fuentes said.

Levin said clients are pleased after starting apprehensive, especially about the lack of live opponents.

“We are open for anybody that needs help (high school or club),” Levin said. “It’s definitely hard to step out of your comfort zone. Everyone that’s tried it usually comes back. But they had to get used to something new.”

In October, NIU and ASU tried virtual competition by switching off horse routines.

“The kids definitely felt the pressure and excitement as if it were a real meet,” Levin said. “They liked how more people were watching live stream than an actual meet.”

Virtual meets probably mean more viewers. With four siblings also in gymnastics, Diab said her parents often watched her brothers’ streamed college routines for Illinois while attending her meets.

“Even in just our intrasquad meet, (our gymnasts) took it seriously and tried to have good routines. They knew their parents were watching. We have a lot of followers. They knew it was going to be posted,” Fuentes said.

“Meets have been live streamed before but we weren’t required to be as adept at using it and now we are. That would be something really, really nice for families. It’s hard to be two places at once. I haven’t figured it out yet.”