by Amy Nedrow, volunteer journalist with the Penn State All-Sports Museum.
On Wednesday, March 13, the All-Sports museum welcomed Karen Schuckman, Penn State’s first female All-American, in celebration of women’s history month. Speaking to an intimate crowd including friends from her undergraduate years at Penn State in attendance, Karen recalled her childhood beginnings in gymnastics & the often serendipitous events that led her full circle back to Penn State.
In 1966 at the age of 10, Karen began competing in gymnastics. In only two years, she qualified for a regional junior competition and it was there she was invited to join a private club. Success followed quickly and in 1972 when she made a serious bid for the Olympics that year in Munich, Germany. Schuckman qualified as an alternate and traveled to Munich as part of the women’s gymnastics team. Following her experience with the Olympics, Karen decided she was finished with gymnastics and returned to her home to finish high school, which she did in the January of her senior year. Penn State was the first and last stop on her college tour and she started classes in the spring term that same year.
In the early 1970’s, women’s gymnastics did exist at a collegiate level, but the athletes participating were not considered the elite of the sport. Karen walked into White Building in the fall of 1973 during a practice and asked if she could join the team. She didn’t mention her recent Olympic past. Tired of being excessive coached (and limited in her creativity) over the years, Schuckman wanted the freedom to explore her artistic ideas in conjunction with her gymnastic talents. Penn State, without the overriding need to excel at that time, provided the perfect opportunity. Karen spent that time doing the gymnastics that she wanted to do. Quite unexpectedly, at the regional competition that year, Karen placed third, earning her a place at Nationals in CA. Her head coach was getting married that weekend, and opted not to go, so an assistant coach Judi Avener and two friends accompanied her to Nationals. It was there that Karen Schuckman won the all-around, making her Penn State’s first national champion in women’s gymnastics. (In a humorous aside, Schuckman confided that her parents didn’t even know she was competing again, let alone across the country winning a national title.)
Following this win was the dawn of Title IX. Schuckman was one of the first female athletes to receive a scholarship at Penn State. And suddenly collegiate gymnastics for women was no longer a retirement home for athletes possibly considered past their prime. Karen remained a vital part of the gymnastics team throughout her time at Penn State. The 1977-78 team was the first in Penn State history to win a national title. Reflecting on that time, Schuckman stated, “The lack of advantages of being a female athlete were offset by having the freedom to do what I wanted to.” She went on to say that with the focus on winning that exists now, she wouldn’t have been able to do now what she did then.
Karen Schuckman ended her academic and gymnastic career with Penn State in the early 80’s and would spend the next few decades away from Happy Valley. On her 50th birthday, Schuckman recalls thinking about where she’s been and where she’d like to be for the next 50 years. “The answer that came to me was Penn State.”
The story for Schuckman is not just about being an athlete. To hear her speak, her story is about people, places, luck and how it can all come together, “Gymnastics was more of a vehicle for my life journey—not the destination…I ended up driving that vehicle of gymnastics down the avenue of Penn State to the destiny that is the life I have now.”
Karen Schuckman is currently Senior Lecturer in geography, teaching remote sensing and geospatial technology in the online programs offered by the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute.
To view the video of Schuckman’s presentation visit http://www.gopsusports.com/allaccess/?media=379444.
Be sure to join us on Tuesday, March 19 at 7pm to hear Natalie Dell talk about her 2012 London Olympic experience.