Southwest gymnast Meeker carves own path to U

Southwest High School 12th-grader Henry Meeker performs at the Elite Team Cup on March 4 in Newark, N.J. Meeker will join the University of Minnesota men's gymnastics team this fall. Photo by John Cheng/USA Gymnastics
Southwest High School 12th-grader Henry Meeker performs at the Elite Team Cup on March 4 in Newark, N.J. Meeker will join the University of Minnesota men's gymnastics team this fall. Photo by John Cheng/USA Gymnastics

When Henry Meeker rattled off his reasons for committing to the University of Minnesota’s men’s gymnastics team, one was conspicuously absent: Following in his dad’s footsteps.

Meeker’s father, Brian Meeker, was a Big Ten champion gymnast and five-time All-American at the U from 1979 to 1982 and went on to become a member of the U.S. National Team. But Henry, a 12th-grader at Southwest High School, insisted that factors such as the university’s proximity to home, its strong engineering program and his familiarity with the team had a greater bearing on his decision.

“I could care less, honestly,” he said of his dad’s legacy. “… I try not to live in the shadow of my dad.”

He’s done a pretty good job so far. Meeker finished fourth in his division at last month’s Junior Olympic National Championships, the sixth year he’s competed in that event. He also helped his Plymouth-based Mini-Hops team to a fourth-place finish in team competition.

That’s not to mention his success at school, where he’s a 4.0 student, a National Merit Scholarship finalist and a member of the math team, among other activities.

“He’s a very positive, happy person,” said Minnesota coach Mike Burns. “To find a kid who’s as happy as he is, it’s really a tribute to his family.”

Meeker began gymnastics when he was about 3 years old, showing what Brian Meeker said was natural strength and flexibility. As a young boy, he was constantly tumbling, climbing and jumping around, his family said, whether it was at T-ball or kindergarten or while practicing his spelling words.

“He just always wanted to be upside down,” Brian said.

Henry began competing when he was about six or seven years old and began training four to six days a week when he was about 12, said his mom, Barb.

Photo by John Cheng/USA Gymnastics
Photo by John Cheng/USA Gymnastics

James Letzring, coach of Mini-Hops’ Junior Olympic boys team, said Henry was one of the rising stars in Minnesota gymnastics ever since he was little.

Henry went to his first Junior Nationals when he was about 11, Letzring said, and has earned multiple top-10 finishes at the event.

“It’s incredible difficult,” Letzring said of that accomplishment. “Everybody that he’s competing against is training between 20 and 35 hours a week.”

Letzring said Henry’s dedication and work ethic make him who he is. Henry has been a co-captain of the Mini-Hops team for the last two years but has led by example for longer than that.

“He takes the lead in what it means to be in practice and shows the rest of the group what it’s like to be dedicated to it and to really put in the time necessary,” Letzring said.

 Demanding schedule

Nowadays, Meeker works out 19 hours a week six days a week during the school year and 20 hours a week in the summer. His days often consist of school, gymnastics, dinner and homework, a schedule that leaves little room for social time or extracurricular activities.

Henry said he thinks the tradeoff has been worthwhile, though there have been practices he doesn’t feel like attending.

“Ninety-nine times out of 100, I go in and keep training,” he said. “Just got to keep in shape and got to keep pressing forward.”

The busy schedule forced Henry to learn time management at a young age, Barb said. He’s thrived in school, despite the hectic schedule, and will graduate Southwest as one of four valedictorians, she said.

He also earned several academic awards and three varsity letters for his participation on Southwest’s math team.

Meeker plans on studying environmental engineering at Minnesota and enrolling in the university’s honors program. He said he hopes to someday make an Olympic team, possibly for his dad’s home country of Canada, of which he also is a citizen.

Brian Meeker was a Big Ten champion gymnast and All-American at the U from 1979 to 1982. He went on to become a member of the U.S. National Team. Photo courtesy University of Minnesota Athletics Department
Brian Meeker was a Big Ten champion gymnast and All-American at the U from 1979 to 1982. He went on to become a member of the U.S. National Team. Photo courtesy University of Minnesota Athletics Department

He’ll join a gymnastics program in Minnesota that placed fifth at the NCAA championships this past spring, its highest finish in 15 years.

The Gophers will return the core of that squad, including three All-Americans. They will add a freshman class that includes Meeker and his Mini-Hops teammate Shane Wiskus, two-time all-around champion at the Junior Nationals.

Henry said he expects to focus on four of the six men’s gymnastics events next year as a freshman, cutting out the high bar and floor. Burns said the team’s lineup is going to be a challenging one to make next year but that he expects Henry to have a good year of development.

“His ability to hit routines is really going to help him out in the long run,” Burns said.

Longtime U connection

Burns got to know Brian Meeker well in the early ’80s, when he was a coach at Iowa and Brian was leading the Gophers to Big Ten titles. When became head coach at Minnesota in 2004, Burns stayed at the Meeker’s Lowry Hill house for a couple of weeks until his apartment became available.

He said he’s had his eye on Henry for years, adding he likes the fact that Henry is well rounded.

“He’s comfortable in his own skin, and I think that’s really important to a young man,” Burns said, adding that he’s looking forward to having Barb and Brian in the program as parents.

Henry Meeker (left) is one of four gymnasts who will be joining the Minnesota men's gymnastics team this fall. Also joining him are (from left to right) Colton Dee, Shane Wiskus and Russell Johnson. Photo courtesy University of Minnesota Athletics Department
Henry Meeker (left) is one of four gymnasts who will be joining the Minnesota men’s gymnastics team this fall. Also joining him are (from left to right) Colton Dee, Shane Wiskus and Russell Johnson. Photo courtesy University of Minnesota Athletics Department

Brian has stayed involved in the gymnastics community over the years, judging events around the world and serving as an officer in the National Gymnastics Judges Association. He currently owns his own gymnastics gym, the Kenwood Gymnastics Center in St. Louis Park.

He said he looks forward to Henry being in the program, adding that he and Barb can give the out-of-state gymnasts a sort of home base.

Henry said he wasn’t sure when he would start training with the Gophers. But for now, the family appears to be looking forward to something it hasn’t had for years: A non-gymnastics-related family vacation.

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