GYMNASTICS: The big C.A.T. takes up the reins at his alma mater

GYMNASTICS: The big C.A.T. takes up the reins at his alma mater

CHESHIRE — For Byron Knox, there is something special about walking into his old gym at Southern Connecticut State University. From 1977 to 1982, Knox shared in many special moments there as a standout gymnast and he enjoys how those memories come rushing back to him.

“It is the same space as when I competed here,” said Knox, a Middletown resident who founded Cheshire Acrobatic Training School (CATS) and ran the facility for 34 years. “It is sort of spooky.”

He looks forward to having that nostalgia on a regular basis this fall. On Sept. 9, Knox was announced as the new SCSU women’s gymnastics head coach.

“I’m excited for the challenge,” said Knox. “We don’t have the highest ranking right now, but it is a matter of time until we get there.”

This is the second straight year that the coaching position was open. As the women’s head coach at Bridgeport University, Knox didn’t pursue theSCSU job last year due to his commitment to his athletes, but when Bridgeport announced it would be canceling their program next year, he decided to leave for his alma mater this time.

“They made me aware of the position again and wanted to know if I was interested,” Knox explained.

Knox has rode quite a journey to becoming head coach at SCSU. He joined the Yale University staff in 1999 and then became an assistant with the SCSU men’s team in 2001.

“Being an alum, it meant a lot to coach with the men’s program,” recalled Knox.

He applied for the SCSU head coaching position in 2004, but didn’t get the job, so Knox accepted the opportunity to take over the gymnastics team at Bridgeport. The program enjoyed historic success under him, winning six consecutive USA Gymnastics/NCAA Division II National Championships from 2009-14. Bridgeport followed up that run with three straight runner-up national finishes.

The team also captured 12 Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference crowns in 13 seasons, including a string of 11 titles in a row.

“We were able to mold that program around what my high school, college, and national team experiences were about,” explained Knox, a four-time USA Gymnastics National Coach of the Year who has worked with 70 All-Americans. “The athletes were the focus. We set the priorities as family, academics, and sports.”

While Bridgeport is ending its program, Knox feels that the gymnasts and coaches will take many great memories with them.

“I’m fond of all of those athletes,” said Knox. "I recruited them.”

After trying to help his former Bridgeport gymnasts get situated, Knox will start practicing with SCSU in two weeks. Due to the coronavirus, he will adapt to guidelines, including limits to the number of people in the gym and length of practice.

“Being a state university, Southern has to abide by state and national restrictions,” explained Knox.

While his coaching background is extensive, Knox didn’t pick up gymnastics himself until his sophomore year at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. He recalls being introduced to the sport as a mandatory activity in gym class.

“At the end of the year (in 1974), I decided to try out for the team,” said Knox, who had previously played football and basketball. “I was told that I was too thin and had started too late (as a gymnast), but that was just more motivation for me.”

He credits his first coach, John Traetta, for helping to instill his passion for gymnastics. Traetta went on to produce ESPN fitness shows in the 1980s.

As Knox grew more experienced in gymnastics, he liked how it put him into a battle with his body.

"If you can control your own body, you can do the sport,” explained Knox. “It is the daredevil aspect. We can all do the same skills, but who can do it best?”

Knox improved rapidly in his a college career at SCSU. Since competitors worked in all around, he competed in the six events.

“I would say that high bar was one of my best events. I was fearless letting go of the bar,” recalled Knox. “Because I was 6’2, my height made it hard on other things.”

Knox helped the Owls win four Eastern Intercollegiate Gymnastics League crowns. Individually, he won titles in all-around and high bar. In 1978, the Owls placed third nationally as a team.

“It was unsatisfying,” stated Knox. “We felt that we were just as good as the teams in front of us.”

As a senior in 1982, Knox made the men’s USA National Team and went on to participate in various competitions, including the first round of the U.S. Olympic Trials.

To prepare to face elite competition, he was invited to train at the National Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

“Every time I got to wear the red, white, and blue I had different feelings,” recalled Knox. “You couldn’t purchase the apparel. It had to be earned.”

After graduation, Knox became interested in coaching and decided to open up CATS Gym in 1985. Before selling the facility to a couple of co-workers last year, he worked with countless championship competitors and also hosted USA Olympic gymnasts.

“It was a great experience. We had a chance to mold a lot of young athletes who have become professionals in the work force,” reflected Knox, who still periodically stops by the gym to see friends. “I was fortunate to work with some of my former athletes’ children.”

He enjoys the relationships he has developed with former gymnasts, like Kaitlyn O’Donnell. A 2006 Cheshire High School graduate, O’Donnell worked with Knox in youth, high school, and in college at Bridgeport.

“I kid her all the time,” said Knox. “She is one of the few people that I’ve worked with from pre-school up through college.”

Knox was happy to see O’Donnell go into coaching at Southington High School. While she was competing in high school, Knox coached the Blue Knights to four state crowns.

In 2017, O’Donnell stepped down from the Southington program to attend graduate school.

"I felt like a parent with Kaitlyn and treated her as such,” said Knox. “She was a scholarship kid at Bridgeport, but worked as hard as anybody else on the team.”

Knox, who has five children, has also enjoyed sharing gymnastics with his family. Two of his daughters, Christina and Vienna, have both worked out at the National Olympic Training Center just like he did growing up.

“I took lots of pictures when we went out there,” recalled Knox. “They still had records of me in the training room.”

While he no longer competes, Knox still finds the competitive aspect as a coach and wants to take SCSU to the next level.

“My son, Jovan Santos Knox, who played professional football (in the Canadian Football League), said that there has been no coach who has started one program and won a national championship and then won a championship somewhere else. I asked him if he was trying to motivate me. I’m looking to assess, coach, train, and win (at SCSU).”

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