Lewis, stretching Islanders" gymnastic talent

By Matt Phelps

The Mercer Island High School gymnastics team is in the midst of one of the best seasons that head coach Lenny Lewis has ever seen. According to Lewis, it is only a matter of time before it breaks the school record of 172.1 for the best team score in its history and will challenge for a state title come February.

Lewis, with his 16 years of experience at the high school, knows that the team must continue to work hard. But the focus, determination and work ethic that he tries to instill in his gymnasts is a product of Lewis' upbringing and life in the sport.

Although Lewis was born in Las Cruces, N.M., and spent time in El Paso, Texas, his mother and two siblings moved to the Central Area of Seattle when he was 14 years old. Lewis always had a natural athletic ability.

``I could always do backflips and walk across the room on my hands,'' said Lewis. ``I remember gym teachers singling me out and telling the class: `This is how you're supposed to do it.'''

But that natural ability didn't stop Lewis from pushing himself. Lewis attended Rainier Beach High School. The school introduced boys gymnastics during his freshman year .

``I turned out with a bunch of my friends,'' said Lewis. ``Everyone quit because it was too hard, except me and this other guy, who stuck with it. Ever since then it has been a huge part of my life.''

Lewis made it to state on the high bar as a freshman. During his sophomore year he made it to state as an all-around gymnast and did well in the Junior Olympics. Although gymnastics was his first passion, Lewis was also on of the best Metro League athletes in wrestling and played on the Vikings' football team. But he never took wrestling into the post season because it interfered with gymnastics.

Lewis won the all-around Metro League title in gymnastics during his junior and senior years and took fifth in state for all-around his final season.

He also worked full time at Herfys restaurant while attending school and playing sports.

``I was the youngest shift manager they had,'' said Lewis. ``They loved me because I was a neat freak. It gave me enough money to buy a new car my junior year -- a Pinto.''

Lewis never thought about going to college until he began to get invitations from Washington State University, Eastern Washington University and Dartmouth.

Lewis took one look at Dartmouth's team scores and wrote them off.

``I didn't realize that they are an Ivy League school,'' said Lewis. ``It shows how much I knew about college.''

Lewis eventually took a scholarship from the Cougars.

``When I got to WSU, it opened my eyes,'' said Lewis. ``In high school I was a big fish, but in college I was just another little guy learning stuff.''

Lewis competed against Olympians in college, and during his senior season, he made it to nationals as an all-around with the final spot from the PAC-10.

``I loved Pullman,'' said Lewis. ``I wanted to live there but I couldn't find a job.''

Lewis graduated in 1980 with a degree in business administration with computer systems. The degree was not his first choice. His passion was in art and computer design.

``I had a counselor tell me, `You don't want to be a starving artist, try this,''' said Lewis, who has recently gone back to school at the Art Institute of Seattle for a computer animation degree.

When he moved back to Seattle, he found a situation he had never been in before -- he was unemployed.

``I always had a job -- even in college I had a job,'' said Lewis, who is currently employed at Boeing. ``I went a month without one and it drove me nuts.''

Lewis eventually found a position at Safeco Insurance. After three years, he moved on to Nordstrom's, where he met his wife, Thelma. The couple now has three children, Cheyanne, 8, Deven, 17, and Lenny, 18, and have lived on Mercer Island for 15 years.

One of Lewis' proudest moments was when his son took fourth in state in diving last year and in 2003. One of his scariest moments came when his son broke his neck performing a backflip.

``Gymnastics can be dangerous,'' said Lewis, who is 47 years old. ``You can't do it cold.''

His youngest daughter is also into gymnastics.

When Lewis came back to Seattle, the idea of being away from gymnastics was too much. He called parks departments and other places offering his coaching services in return for a place to work out. He found a place in the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department in Rainier Valley.

``It was free for the kids so I had 50 kids in a class,'' said Lewis.

Not long after, Lewis received a call from North Mercer Junior High needing a coach. The job led to more jobs on the Island for Lewis until he began volunteering at the high school as a spotter. During the 1989-1990 season Lewis took over as the Islanders' head coach.

Lewis' position as head coach at the high school is one of guidance for most of girls that do club gymnastics.

``I try to make a team,'' said Lewis. ``I don't teach them all these fantastic moves. I just tweak what they have and make sure they know the high school requirements. These girls practice hard. It is not like when I was in high school. You have to do it 24/7 now.''

Lewis said that despite all his coaching, he still misses the competing.

``I do the rings sometimes and I get a good workout from spotting the girls,'' said Lewis.

His focus right now, though, is preparing his Islander team.

Lewis said that to this point in the season the team is the best he has had but that they must keep pushing themselves if they want to meet their potential.

``I can see us hitting 174 or 175 and we still have room to grow,'' said Lewis, who added that a team score of 176 won the state title last year for Issaquah. ``We are going to kick some serious butt.''

Lewis said that he wants his Islander girls to maintain a high work ethic and dedication to he team so that they can meet their potential. It has been 20 years since the Islanders won the 3A KingCo title. This season the Islanders are aiming for a state title.

``We have a legit shot at winning state,'' said Lewis. ``But we have to work hard.''

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