All around, gymnast Abdullah-Simmons raises the bar

Men's gymnastics, a dwindling offering on America's college campuses, is as white as the chalk that Taqiy Abdullah-Simmons cakes on his hands to secure his sweaty grip.

But on April 13, 2007, symbolically standing on the shoulders of the small group of African-American gymnasts who came before him, the University of Oklahoma's Abdullah-Simmons became the first black gymnast to win the NCAA all-around national title.

It was "a first" that even surprised the 21-year-old.

"I thought it happened in the '80s or early '90s," Abdullah-Simmons told ESPN.com. "I just assumed it had been done."

Wrong. Black gymnasts had won individual apparatus national titles as far back as 1977 when LSU's Ron Galimore captured the NCAA floor exercise title. But none had scored the highest total in all six men's events.

Taqiy -- pronounced "TAH-key" -- cracked a few stereotypes and, in so doing, honored one of his idols, Jair Lynch. Stanford's Lynch won a pair of NCAA event titles in 1992 and 1993 and became the first African-American male gymnast to win an Olympic medal -- silver on the parallel bars in 1996.

"When I left the sport, I wanted somebody to break more barriers than I had," Lynch, now a Washington, D.C., real estate developer, said. "Being able to provide that ladder, that opportunity for future athletes, has always been important to me. His victory is another great milestone."

Abdullah-Simmons was 10 years old and already competing in 1996, and he remembers watching Lynch on television at the Atlanta Olympics. He recalls being inspired. Now, with an NCAA all-around crown, it's Abdullah-Simmons' turn to be the role model.

"I want to be in a position to inspire kids to try any sport they want to try, and not be put in a box and just play basketball or football or those other normal sports," he said. "Kids should have an opportunity to try whatever sport they want."

In addition to Lynch, other African-American gymnasts, of course, came before Abdullah-Simmons: Mike Carter at LSU from 1973-75; Galimore, who transferred to Iowa State, won NCAA event titles and then made the 1980 Olympic team, only to be boycotted out of the Moscow Games; Charles Lakes, who in 1988 became the first African-American gymnast to compete in an Olympics, and UCLA's Chainey Umphrey, who was second in the all-around at the 1993 NCAAs and competed on the 1996 Olympic team.

But face it: Gymnastics is one of those "country club sports."

"It's become like golf and tennis," said Oklahoma gymnastics coach Mark Williams. "Generally, the athletes come from affluent backgrounds. To come from the inner city area of Philadelphia like Taqiy, that's pretty rare."

Abdullah-Simmons' career was launched on Allegheny Avenue in North Philadelphia.

"It's not the worst part of Philadelphia," he said. "But I wouldn't consider it that safe. I mean, people have been shot in front of my house before."

As little boys, Taqiy and his older brother, Mubarek, tumbled through the narrow row house they shared with two older siblings and their mother and father. Their mom, Fatimah, was a dancer and gymnast as a girl and taught the boys forward rolls and cartwheels.

"But they outgrew the house very quickly," she remembered.

So she took them to a Philadelphia Department of Recreation program, where coaches and administrators recognized their potential. Especially in Taqiy.

"My husband's philosophy was to keep our children busy and tired," Fatimah Abdullah-Simmons said. She enrolled her children in science clubs and tennis and other activities. "But if you have four of them, you're busy, tired and broke."

Before long, the Abdullah-Simmons family was commuting from their North Philly home to a gym in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., a 45-minute drive, several times a week for Taqiy to train under coach Macy Watson, a black man. Taqiy's parents said they were shunned by other Philadelphia-area gymnastics coaches.

"Doors were slammed in our faces," said Amin Abdullah-Simmons, Taqiy's father.

Many people, he said, told the family, "We were wasting our time; that it was a white man's sport, and it wasn't for African-Americans.''

The financial burden was great. Fatimah is a self-employed clothing designer and interior decorator. Amin works as a field representative for a medical assistance claims consulting company. When Taqiy first went to Watson's gym, tuition stood at more than $300 per month. Plus travel. Plus other team fees.

Still, the parents' commitment to their boys' gymnastics was unwavering.

"We were not willing to make the sacrifices just for running and jumping on the apparatus," Fatimah said. "It was for the life skills. In gymnastics, you're not going to get a skill that first time. You're going to fall and miss landings. In life, you have to pick yourself up, too. That's what we taught our children.''

By the time he was 15, Taqiy had already won a junior national all-around title (2002). As many gymnasts do, he had to move away to train. In his case, he went all the way to Houston, and his mom went with him. Mubarek had already headed to Texas for junior college. While Murabek was there, Williams recruited and signed him with the Sooners.

And Williams saw Taqiy as a high schooler in Houston. He was a strong youngster then, and now as an Oklahoma senior is, by gymnastics standards, big at 5-foot-7, 175 pounds. For instance, no member of the U.S. 2004 men's Olympic team weighed more than 160 pounds or was taller than 5-6.

"First thing you saw was his power, but also the quickness," Williams said of Taqiy. "And it's hard to train the style and elegance he possesses. Then you put in his time and effort and what he does in terms of working, and it all gets better from there."

Scholarships for male gymnasts are few and far between nowadays. On the university level, budget cutbacks have trimmed many men's sports -- such as wrestling and track and field -- that are also part of the Olympic program. Only 16 Division I scholarship men's gymnastics programs still exist.

"To this day, I have no idea how my parents paid for gymnastics," Taqiy said. "They had to make a lot of sacrifices. But now I'm on scholarship and I'm not paying for my college education. They think it was all worth it."

The all-around NCAA title comes with social significance.

In gymnastics circles, some say the unspoken bias was that African-American gymnasts weren't good all-around, that they excelled on the floor exercise or vault, Amin said, but not other events.

Galimore, now a USA Gymnastics vice president and an international judge, disagreed that such a myth exists.

"I would beg to differ," Galimore said. "Mike Carter. Jair Lynch. Chainey Umphrey would beg to differ. No. No."

At any rate, the Abdullah-Simmons family didn't let it stop them.

"I never paid any attention to that," Taqiy's father said of the undertones. "I always told our kids to do all six (events). You've got to have a six-shooter. You've got to be fully loaded."

"I definitely heard that, that African-American gymnasts were only good in power events, the floor and vault and, occasionally, rings,'' Taqiy said. "It makes it a lot better to know that I was able to be considered a good all-around gymnast and not just, you know, status quo."

This winter, he is recovering from two off-season knee surgeries. He had an operation on his left knee two years ago. He's had a broken collarbone. Groin surgery. A chipped bone in his ankle. Broken fingers. He's got a full NCAA season and the goal of leading Oklahoma to an NCAA title before this summer's U.S. Olympic trials for the 2008 Beijing Games.

The trials are scheduled to be held at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia on June 19-22. Abdullah-Simmons wants to be there.

"That would mean a great deal to me," he said, "because I've never really competed at home … other than a rec tumbling meet in Philadelphia, when I was, like, six years old."

Since then, this gymnast has made all sorts of history.

Jay Weiner writes from St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at jay@jayweiner.com.