Gymnastics: 40 years and still going string for Merrillville’s Roberts
MERRILLVILLE — Down the hallway that runs the length of the gymnastics room at Merrillville High School, on the left side, there is a trophy case reserved for the Pirates’ gymnastics program.
One end of the case begins in the 1970s and, after a brief stroll, you’ll reach today’s date. As you follow this shelf from beginning to end, you can, literally, watch time pass. The photos begin in black and white before becoming saturated with Merrillville’s familiar shade of purple. Hairstyles come and go, as do the gymnasts, sometimes wearing medals but always wearing smiles.
The one constant in these photos, however, is the woman responsible for so much of this program for the past 40 years: Head coach Diane Roberts.
“This is my passion,” Roberts said from her picture-laden office. “Sometimes with longevity comes boredom or fatigue or monotony, but I don’t feel any of those things.”
Roberts’ mantra comes from a bumper sticker posted in a few different spots in that office. It reads: “I eat, sleep, talk, breathe, walk, dream, live and love gymnastics.”
Pointing to it, she adds: “I’ve always said that when that ceases to be me, then I’ll know it’s time to walk away. But that’s still me.”
“There was never a time when the passion wasn’t there. It’s always been what she’s done,” said Pirates assistant coach and Diane’s son Nick Roberts, who was hired in 2005. Nick took over for Bill Roberts, his father and Diane’s husband, who coached the 30 prior years.
Those who are around her every day pick up on Roberts’ passion for gymnastics.
“She’s in it because she loves coaching and she loves the sport and it shows,” said Merrillville senior Amy Aponte.
“She’s like a magnet; she’s so comfortable to be around,” said Lauren Lamb, another Merrillville senior. “It’s just fun to be around all the fun stuff she does.”
There’s been plenty of success, too. Under Roberts’ leadership, Merrillville has won 15 sectional championships, 11 regional championships, and two state championships (1986 and 1992). The Pirates have been state runners-up four times, and produced four individual state champions, all according to the IHSAA website.
But the legacy of Roberts’ lengthy career is not in the accolades. It revolves more around the people her program has produced.
“I think her athletes realize that it goes beyond gymnastics,” said Valparaiso head coach Lorie Cook, who’s in her 38th year in that role and has known Roberts since the age of 16. “They have the perspective that Diane cares about them as a total person, not just as an athlete in the gym during the season.”
That explains why so many of Roberts’ gymnasts come back to visit years after leaving high school.
“I recently came back to Indiana and that was one of the first places I went to,” said Hannah Watkins, a 2008 Merrillville graduate. “For many of my teammates, too, it’s a place that any of us who went through the program go back to.”
Watkins, who moved to California in May, is a prime example of another aspect of Roberts’ legacy: Grooming future gymnastics coaches. Under Roberts’ guidance, Watkins began coaching with the Merrillville Gymnastics Club in sixth grade. By graduation, former Pirates are as equally skilled in teaching the sport as they are in performing it.
“One of the things I’ve prided myself on is that, when my gymnasts are in middle school, they begin learning the art of coaching,” Roberts said. “I start them early so that coaching or teaching might become their passion and they always have that career available to use in their adult life.”
“She told us we’d all have to be leaders eventually,” said Watkins, who coaches at the Rockstar Gymnastics Academy in Chula Vista, Calif. “She was a huge influence in my life. She knew all of us inside and out — well beyond gymnastics.”
A former teacher, Roberts ended that part of her long career four years ago and now focuses solely on gymnastics. She’s gone from 18-hour days to 9-hour days — she called the decrease “heaven.”
“It’s just wonderful,” she said. “There was never any doubt that this where I needed to be.”