Yankee Ridge honoring gymnast whose first flips came on its monkey bars

Yankee Ridge honoring gymnast whose first flips came on its monkey bars

URBANA — It was the headstand that began an Olympic career.

In the gym of Urbana's Yankee Ridge Elementary, Mrs. Richards' class was having a competition to see who could stand on their head for the longest amount of time. Retrospectively, it's clear that no one else in Nancy (Thies) Marshall's class had a chance.

At the time, though, the middle child of three siblings needed the validation that comes with a victory.

"At that time, I was struggling with self-esteem," she said. "I won the headstand contest, and I just remember her coming up to me and affirming me in front of the entire class, which just made me feel so valued, and looking me straight in the eyes and just saying, 'Nancy, you are amazing.'

"And that's all she said — 'You are amazing' — but I'll never forget that moment in that gym. I just felt like I was nurtured with enough courage to think, 'Wow, I could actually have a dream like that.'"

Yankee Ridge plans to name its gym after the Olympian, ensuring that Marshall's place in the school's lore would never be forgotten.

Marshall's connection to Yankee Ridge runs deep. It's where she ran out to the playground day after day to play on the monkey bars, eschewing all other activities.

"I spent pretty much all of my time swinging on the bars as opposed to doing jump rope," she said. "I love swinging and flipping upside down."

During her years at Yankee Ridge, Marshall began participating in gymnastics after a short spell of ballet lessons. It was where she went to school when she transformed her living room into an impromptu Olympic arena during the 1968 Mexico City Games and vaulted off a chair and through a closed window. It's where, year after year, she performed gymnastics for the talent show.

Just a few years after she moved on from the school, the Urbana and University of Illinois graduate competed in the 1972 Munich Olympics, where the United States finished just shy of the podium in fourth place.

When her brother, John Thies, told her that she was nominated for the Yankee Ridge honor a few weeks ago, Marshall burst into tears.

"It was a very spontaneous, very emotional moment," she said. "I was completely flabbergasted that I would be considered for something like that. There are many amazing people that came from that great school. Many of them were my peers, and I'm very humbled to be honored."

Marshall, who lives in Oregon, said she expects to be back in Urbana this fall, although details of the gym's dedication are still undecided.

"That I would be remembered and that I would be honored in that way at a school that had such an amazing impact on my life ... I feel pretty humbled," she said. "I just don't feel like I deserve it, but I feel very, very grateful."

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