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Charzuk coached the person, not athlete

John Charzuk, a New York native, was a standout gymnast for the University of New Mexico in the late 1960s. He was also co-founder and longtime head coach at Albuquerque Gymnastics School. Charzuk died on Feb. 1 at 73. (Courtesy of Esther Jones)

Based on the old gymnastics scoring system, friends, colleagues and former students say, John Charzuk scored a perfect 10 — not only as a coach, but as a human being.

In matters personal and professional, they say, he invariably stuck the landing.

Charzuk, with his wife, Linda, for decades made Albuquerque Gymnastics School a safe haven and springboard to success for countless young athletes. The former University of New Mexico gymnast died unexpectedly from an apparent heart attack on Feb. 1. He was 73.

Sierra Shirley, one of Charzuk’s former athletes at AGS, wrote, “(Charzuk) epitomized everything right about this sport. He was a coach who cared more about building confidence in young women than talent.

“… In a sport that demands hard work, perseverance and grit, he made you laugh more than cry (which is an amazing feat dealing with teenage girls).”

A New York native, Charzuk came to Albuquerque in the late 1960s to compete for coach Rusty Mitchell at UNM. True to his Bronx roots, though, he remained a lifelong and devoted Yankees fan.

Joe Camacho, a fellow AGS coach, a fellow New Yorker and a friend for more than a half-century, said Charzuk coached the entire person, not just the athlete.

“John, the number of kids that he touched, gymnastically and educationally, was phenomenal,” Camacho said. “It had to be in the thousands.”

He and Charzuk, Camacho said, began gymnastics at St. Mary’s Recreation Center in The Bronx. “That (cost) a dollar a year,” he said.

“We were also in the YMCA in the Bronx on 161st Street. We went anywhere there was an open gym where we could work out.”

At UNM, Charzuk — particularly strong on the side horse — was a co-captain with the late Stormy Eaton in 1970 and shared team MVP honors with Dave Repp that same year.

Charzuk married Linda Ulteig in 1973, and the couple founded AGS the following year.

The school was highly competitive in local, state and regional competitions. Charzuk, though, was more interested in personal development than in victory.

“His scorecard for success,” Shirley wrote on a Facebook remembrance page, “revolved around college scholarships … not national championships.”

Among the AGS athletes who competed in college women’s gymnastics:

Kelly Chaplin, Arizona; Katrine Waterman, Air Force; Sierra Bertholomey (Shirley), Denver; Therese Videan, Oregon State; Heather Qualls, Eastern Michigan; Carmelina Carbajal and Laura Johnson, Minnesota.

Shirley vouched for Camacho’s statement that Charzuk coached the whole person.

“Not only did he train me back from (a potentially) career-ending injury to a spot on a Division I team,” she wrote. “He gave me my first copy of the U.S. Constitution, instilling the importance of history, duty and patriotism.”

Charzuk and Camacho focused on women’s gymnastics. But AGS athletes who competed in men’s college gymnastics include Mike Chaplin, Kelly’s brother, who competed at UCLA, and Ryan Roberts (UNM, Massachusetts).

Cheryl Armstrong trained at AGS in the 1970s, then sent several of her daughters to work for Charzuk there.

“They’ve all been impacted by his generosity and kindness,” she said. “… He never spoke negatively to you, just always tried to encourage you to do well and do your best.”

Mitchell, Charzuk’s coach at UNM, suffered a debilitating stroke in 2016. Armstrong said Charzuk had visited Mitchell regularly since the stroke.

Charzuk was helpful as well, she said, to Mike Sandry, a former UNM gymnast and Albuquerque coach who fell ill before dying in 2017.

Jen Dobbs, who had competed for a different gym, remembers being upset during a meet in the 1980s. It was Charzuk, she wrote, who came over to make sure she was OK.

“I wasn’t even his gymnast, but he cared enough to check,” Dobbs wrote. “Watching him coach at meets for years, he was amazing. He was so great with all gymnasts and coaches, no matter their gym affiliation.”

Camacho, after being laid off as a teacher in the New York City school system, came to Albuquerque at Charzuk’s urging. They coached together at AGS for years.

“He had started his school small at first,” Camacho said. “But, doggone it, it turned into a boomer.”

In his later years, Charzuk and his wife had sold AGS to Esther Jones.

Always handy with tools, Charzuk was helping a friend with a construction project when he was stricken.

Beverly Turner, Kelly and Mike Chaplin’s mother, described Charzuk this way:

“He was a gentleman with a purpose.”

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