Legendary Gymnastics Coach Nancy Baker Dies

Born in Saint Peter in 1936, Nancy Baker went on to a pioneering career that helped set the foundation for women's gymnastics in Minnesota and beyond.
Posted on March 30th, 2021 by

Longtime Gustavus Adolphus College gymnastics coach and professor of health and exercise science Nancy Baker passed away on Saturday, March 27, 2021  at the age of 85. Baker, who was born and raised in Saint Peter and graduated from Gustavus in 1956 with a degree in physical education, returned to her alma mater in 1958 and went on to launch the school’s gymnastics program in 1962.

Nancy Baker

Baker, along with Minneapolis-based gymnastics coach Bill Watson, played a pivotal role in developing the sport by organizing workshops for teachers and athletes in the early 1960s. In 1963, Gustavus hosted the first women’s gymnastics meet in the State of Minnesota. From 1966-1982, Baker’s Gustavus teams won 15 state meets in 17 appearances. The Gusties placed second in the first regional meet and took home eighth-place honors in the first national meet in 1971.

“Nancy Baker was a trailblazer for women’s collegiate athletics, for both athletes and coaches. Without Nancy, collegiate gymnastics would not be what it is today,” Gustavus head coach and former gymnastics competitor Aryn DeGrood ’09 said.

Baker and the Gustavus gymnastics team took it to another level in 1982, when the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) hosted the first-ever national championships for small colleges and the Golden Gusties won the title. From then until Baker’s retirement in 1992, Gustavus gymnastics teams would go on to win six more national titles. In her 30-year coaching career, Baker coached five All-Around National Champions, 14 individual event national champions, and 34 All-Americans.

“Not only was she a dear friend but also a mentor,” former Gustavus professor and fellow women’s athletics pioneer Gretchen Koehler said. “She had such foresight about the growth of health and wellness and the future of women’s sports.”

The coach’s impact was felt across the gymnastics landscape as she served as the chair of the AIAW gymnastics committee and as a founding member of the National Collegiate Gymnastics Association (NCGA). Baker was also a four-time Division III national coach of the year (1982, 1984, 1989, and 1992). She was inducted into the Gustavus Athletics Hall of Fame in 1997 and the NCGA Hall of Fame in 2011. Building from the strong foundation set by Baker, the Gustavus gymnastics program has produced eight team national championships, 22 individual event national champions, and 100 All-Americans as of 2021.

Baker earlier this year.

“Beyond being a highly successful coach, Nancy was a seminal figure in creating a Division III gymnastics model,” DeGrood said. “Without her, collegiate gymnastics at any level would not be what it is today. Anyone who has been a part of the Gustavus program, the NCGA, or collegiate gymnastics has directly felt the impact of Nancy’s hard work and determination.”

In addition to her incredible gymnastics coaching career, Baker taught generations of students as a professor of health and exercise science at Gustavus and was recognized with the Edgar M. Carlson Award for Distinguished Teaching—the College’s highest teaching honor—in 1983, the Gustavus Distinguished Alumni Citation in 1981, and the College’s community service award in 1990. She also served as a coach of the Gustavus swimming team, was the Women’s Athletic Director from 1970-1979, and gave back to her hometown of Saint Peter by serving on the local school board for 15 years including five as chair.

“Nancy was a leader in health education and physical activity for young kids and always talked about the importance of movement and balance,” Koehler said. “She understood nutrition, mindfulness, and stress management long before wellness was a term that was used.”

“Her office door was always open. Students could go to Nancy with any problem and she was always ready to listen,” longtime friend and former athletic department administrative assistant Dee Swenson said. “She was strict but she loved a good laugh and she was always available. Nancy was a very caring person.”

“She was a mentor to all and cared for students and colleagues alike,” Koehler added. “Nancy was a true advocate for women’s athletics and the importance of physical education.”

Nancy (Adolphson) Baker was preceded in death by her husband of over 50 years, Richard John Baker. She is survived by her daughter Geri (Don) Halbert ’77, her son Pat ’79, four grandchildren, and five great grandchildren. A celebration of life will be planned at a later date. A full obituary is available online.


MEDIA CONTACT:

CJ Siewert
Director of Sports Information

Direct: 507-933-7647
Email: siewert@gustavus.edu

 


8 Comments

  1. Gretchen Koehler says:

    well said such a great person I will miss so much

  2. Martha Driscoll-Nelson says:

    Baker was simply amazing. A real pioneer and proponent of education and Title 9. A fabulous mentor and coach. She is deeply missed.

  3. Marci Mannella Wills ‘81 says:

    Nancy was such a huge presence in so many of our lives! She taught me how to be a impactful teacher & coach and I am so grateful for her guidance. She also taught my daughters (her grand-daughters) many life lessons! She will be missed but her influence will live on for generations.

  4. Evie Erdman says:

    Mrs. B was a pioneer and trailblazer and lead us all down that path. Those were the evolutionary/revolutionary
    years in the advancement in women’s athletics. Forever indebted to her for her wisdom, guidence and boldness.
    She had a way…..I will miss you.

  5. Toni Dangelo Boie says:

    Mrs. Baker was an important part of the lives of many. Personally she guided my choice of a major, listened to problems, encouraged me to push my limits and helped me get my first position as coach and teacher. She empowered us to “go for it” and we respected her. She was the boss.

  6. Becky (Wilson) Meisel 1994 says:

    Baker meant the world to me. She was my family away from family. She always watched out for my best interest and she cared with all of her heart. I will miss her greatly. Love you B.

  7. Robb DeCorsey ‘91 says:

    I wouldn’t be where I am today without Baker. She was relentless in challenging me to become the best teacher I could be. She worked us tough, but the experiences we had made me and the other PE majors the best.
    Love you Baker.

  8. Linda Duepner Donnelly ‘76 says:

    For all of us gymnasts and Physical Education majors from the 70’s, Mrs. Baker filled the role of coach, mentor, teacher, “Mother Hen”, and even.. “Matchmaker! “ She led us down a path of determination, pride, team work, and…laughter! I can still hear her laugh when telling a story…whether it included parents , judges scores, close wins, spotters and/ or routines. From day one , each of us felt we were special and loved. That was her gift to us. Our gift in return was to teach, coach, dream big, and believe in ourselves and our students. For us young Gustie women , Mrs Baker was loved, admired and famous in our book of life influences. She will be greatly missed. Thank you Nancy Baker!