For 31 years, Steve Klotz, former owner of Redwood Empire Gymnastics, in Petaluma, provided a safe, supportive, and fun place for gymnastics students of all ages and skill levels to come learn and grow. He created a culture where the mission statement was “Quality, Success, Confidence,” for both students and staff members, which Steve explains in further detail in this interview. I was one of the fortunate people to work for Steve Klotz, and was blessed to be able to sit down with him recently to have this inspiring chat. I hope you enjoy it!
When and how did you get started with gymnastics?
I think the first thing I did was in sixth grade, in elementary school in Florida. They had a P.E. program which had a gymnastics section that lasted two or three weeks. I did that and I found out that I could do pretty well at those things but after that I never really thought about it again until high school. They had a men’s gymnastics team at my high school so in tenth grade I went out and made the team. It was a fun challenge. I was lucky to have had that at my high school.
When did you begin competing, and for how long?
I started competing in tenth grade and continued for three years in high school. Then I got into the Naval Academy and competed for four years in college. I got into the Naval Academy through gymnastics in high school. I met the coach in my senior year and he got me an appointment and got me into the academy.
How do you feel gymnastics contributed to your personal development? What are the greatest benefits being involved with the sport gave you?
I think the self-confidence that gymnastics gives you is the main thing. Gymnastics is the kind of sport that if you work on it, you’re going to improve. If you work on your strength or you work on your flexibility, or you just do your drills, you’re going to get better. That’s what’s nice about it. I guess that’s true in any sport, but in gymnastics there are so many areas to go in. If you put your work in, it will get better.
How much value do you place on the gymnast-coach relationship? What kind of relationship did you have with your coaches through the years?
In gymnastics, more than any other sport, you have to believe that your coach really cares about your well being. You have to have a trust relationship with your coach. If you’re on the swim team, nobody is going to drown swimming, but in gymnastics, you’re going get hurt. When you do a skill in gymnastics you have to give it one hundred percent. If you hold back a little bit you’re not going to be able to accomplish that skill. And you have to believe that the information that your coach is giving you is the right information for you to attempt that skill. You definitely have to have a trust relationship with your coach, especially at the higher levels. But it’s really for all levels because if you’re doing stuff that’s challenging your ability of what you think you can do, whether it’s walking on a balance beam for the first time, or doing a double back flip into the pit or whatever, you have to trust in your coach because you’re doing something that you’ve never done before and I think that’s what builds your over-all self-confidence is doing that challenge. I remember my sister taught me that. As an adult, she walked on the balance beam for the first time and it was to her, very challenging but also very rewarding that she could do something like that. Normally, in your adult life, you’re not doing things that you’re really afraid of. You’re not overcoming fears a lot. Gymnastics gives you a lot of chances to overcome fears and you have to totally trust your coach to do that. If they say, ‘You can do this’, you have to believe them. And you have to believe that they sincerely care about you and they can’t fake that. That relationship can’t be faked.
Did you have a good relationship with your coaches?
Yes, I had a very good coach in high school that started a strong foundation for me, and then I went on to my college coach. We had a life-long relationship that continued after college until he passed away a few years ago.
Did you dream of being a coach as a younger gymnast? When did you start your coaching career?
When I did gymnastics at the academy, I stayed there and coached after I graduated for about six months. But it was just something I did because the opportunity came. I wasn’t dedicated to being a coach. When you graduate from the Naval Academy, you have to go into the Navy for five years. So that was my focus at the time and then I didn’t get back into coaching until I was finished with the Navy and started a gym with other people in San Rafael, in 1975. That’s when I started really coaching from scratch. That gym was then called Gym Marin, but it has changed hands a couple of times and now it’s currently Mega Gymnastics.
At what point did you decide to open your own gym?
I had this other gym with partners in San Rafael and there was a woman there who came to sub for us occasionally who was teaching at Santa Rosa Gymnastics. She was from Petaluma and she was interested in starting a club in Petaluma. This was after I had co-owned a gym for about three years so I kind of knew what it took to start a club. I went with her to start a club in Petaluma. She ended up not being a partner but being one of the primary coaches at the time. She encouraged me to start a gym in Petaluma because there was nothing between Santa Rosa and San Rafael.
How did you get the word out and get it started?
Petaluma had a Parks and Recreation program and the woman who ran that program had about one hundred kids who would show up every Saturday at the high school for recreational gymnastics. She turned that over to me so I started with a base of one hundred kids that were guaranteed and that’s what paid the rent. Petaluma was only twenty five thousand people at the time, so it was mostly word of mouth advertising.
What were your goals when you started REG? Did you want to have team classes, recreation classes, or both?
I think most of the gyms in the seventies were started by former gymnasts who wanted to coach and develop strong gymnastics teams. When I started, the schools at the time had either very strong teams, but were doing very bad as a business, or they had a very good recreational program and a strong business, but very weak teams. So I wanted to try to do both. I wanted to have a strong team, but to support a strong team you had to have a large recreation program financially to support the team. In the early clubs it was the owner that was the head coach and the businesses weren’t doing well because the owners were coaching the team, cleaning the gym, setting up the equipment, and doing everything by themselves because there was no extra profit to pay a staff. And if they weren’t paying attention to their recreational programs then that part of the program wasn’t growing. What I tried to do was build a strong recreational program and a strong team.
For many years, you coached classes as well as running the business of the gym. This included administrative work, searching for and hiring good coaches, building relationships with your students and their families, organizing the class schedules and lessons plans, being a business man in the community, etc. How did you manage all of that?
Well, when the gym was smaller and the staff was smaller, I was lucky to have very good people that I could rely on that could take on a lot of responsibilities and I was able to do that until the gym got to the size where I needed to take myself off the floor to allow myself full time to do all of those responsibilities. When the business was smaller, those responsibilities were smaller. As the staff grew to thirty five to forty people, it became full time managing and doing all the other responsibilities. Again, I was lucky to have good people so I could step back and allow them to do the floor while I did the business. And that allowed the business to grow and improve.
Over the years, REG evolved into a huge gym. What was the largest student count you had grown to?
We had about twelve hundred kids enrolled monthly, and two or three hundred that came with their preschool programs, so it was probably close to fifteen hundred at the peak.
What were the most important things you wanted to offer your students and their families, or mission statement? Did that evolve over the years as you matured as a coach and business owner?
We evolved to ‘Quality, Success, Confidence’ as our mission statement. What we wanted to keep consistent was that we were developing confidence in the kids and that we weren’t doing anything as coaches or as instructors that was not encouraging confidence and growth. So “Quality, Success, Confidence’, defined, was we wanted a high quality program, equipment, and staff that would allow the kids at all levels, whether they were a three-year-old, or a team kid, to be successful and that would grow their confidence. At whatever level, our goal was to use gymnastics as a tool to grow confidence in the kids. You had to have the appropriate coach at the appropriate level to do that. Some of the high level team coaches that were very technical weren’t necessarily the best coaches with the beginning kids. After years of experience, we learned that it was easier to find people that had that personality to teach, that enjoyed seeing learning happen. Those people could be taught basic gymnastics skills to work with the beginning levels. That was easier than trying to teach technically qualified gymnasts to like working with beginning level kids. It just always worked out better. Steve Sassone, our preschool and recreational director, was good at spotting people out that had that empathy. You can’t create that. I think people either have that quality or they don’t, where seeing learning happen excites them and that has to be something you have internally or you’re not going to be a good teacher. And the thing about teaching gymnastics is that you can easily see as a teacher whether you’re message is getting across to your student. You can see if they are doing the cartwheel right, and if they’re not you can give them a correction and you can see if that correction is working or not. If you teach academically, you don’t always know that. You’re giving information and you don’t know whether it’s being absorbed or not. Whereas in gymnastics, you can see right away whether they’re getting what you’re saying and understanding it. Your feedback is instantaneous and it’s rewarding for both the student and the teacher.
After all the hard work, personal sacrifice, and dedication to keeping the gym going, you provided a place for thousands of children to have the opportunity to grow stronger physically, socially, and mentally on their journey to adulthood. You also provided employment for hundreds of coaches through the years. You contributed greatly to our communities. Did you ever envision that the gym would help so many people?
No, not initially. We were just trying to keep the doors open and get enough people to pay the rent. We just kind of grew as the town grew and as the interest in gymnastics grew, naturally. The club we started in San Rafael started in December of 1975 and we had about two-hundred kids. Then that summer was the 1976 Nadia Comanici Olympics and the enrollment went from two-hundred to six-hundred kids literally over-night. The place we had wasn’t big enough. We moved a year later to a new place.
Gymnastics is known for taking super high energy kids who need to channel that energy into a positive direction. Do you have any favorite examples of witnessing this happening with a student?
I can’t think of anyone specifically in this moment. The kids somewhere along the line have to develop that focus to be safe in gymnastics. There were a lot of high energy kids that did struggle with learning to focus, but they had to at some point calm down enough so they could focus on what they were doing to get to the next level. And I witnessed that transition many times over the years.
What are some of the most satisfying things you feel you accomplished as a gym owner?
By far, it’s seeing the kids that were there then, where they are now. They’re such a great group of people! I still see them on line on Facebook. I’ve gone to weddings. Just to see what great adults they’ve become and how gymnastics played a big part in their self-esteem and I think contributed to the adults that they’ve become. That’s probably the nicest thing.
What were the most important things you learned from being a gym owner and leader in our community?
I think if you have an environment at work where everybody on staff is focused on the same objectives, which for us was building confidence in kids and having a place where they felt physically and emotionally safe, then everything will take care of itself. And it’s getting the right people in there. People don’t change a lot who they are and the values they have. Getting the people that have your same values, and those values are important in their lives, I think then you have an environment where everybody is working together to reach that objective and to keep everybody safe and make sure that people are feeling good about what they’re doing as students and also as teachers. It took a while to see that.
How did you decide it was time to sell the gym and retire? That must have been a difficult decision for you to make.
I think the time was just right for me. I’d done it for thirty-one years and it seemed like the right time. I tell this to other people I know in business. I think you just know when the time is right.
Are you still involved with gymnastics in any capacity today? Do you still follow what’s happening in the world of collegiate and elite gymnastics?
I follow it mostly through the people I know that are involved in gymnastics. I stay in touch and I go to former student’s college meets where I get to see other people from REG too. I follow people on line and see how they are doing. It’s just neat to see the number of former gymnasts who are still coaching throughout the country at colleges and clubs. It’s neat to see that gymnastics is still affecting them positively. It was fun helping Mary Jambon set up her new gym in Sonoma. I stopped by and gave her some advice on how to physically set things up and gave her suggestions on things to do. I enjoy passing on what I learned because not a lot of people ask me that. I feel happy to have helped her out.
What have you been up to since you retired?
I initially volunteered to be on the Petaluma Parks and Recreation Commission. I did that for four year and was the chairman for the last two years. I worked with the Petaluma Kiwanis Club, they’re a service club. And I joined and recently finished with the Civil Grand Jury. I did that for a year. It ended up being around ten hours a week of volunteer work. That was interesting. The report we wrote recently came out in the newspaper. And now I’m looking for something else to get involved with but I don’t know what that’s going to be yet. I’ve also been working on my golf and poker games!
Thank you so much, Steve, for sharing your knowledge, wisdom, and experiences with us. It was so great catching up with you! You’re loved by many people in our community and we’re grateful for all the good things you’ve given to so many.