Fearless in a Field of Dreams

Published 3:00 pm Thursday, December 7, 2023

Smithfield gymnasts vault to national prominence under veteran coach

Story by Phyllis Speidell

Photos by John H. Sheally II

Behind the purple door of an unassuming building in the Isle of Wight Industrial Park lies a true field of dreams. Here young gymnasts  flip, swing, balance and vault with fearless focus and endless energy. The Field of Dreams gymnastics training center is a world of movement, athletic skills and confidence-building.  The center is also part of a continuing dream for Coach Barry Keeley who has excelled in gymnastics, as a gymnast and as a coach, for the last 66 years. 

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With Keeley’s training and under his watchful eye, the young gymnasts learn how to tumble, flip through the air on the high bar, swing through maneuvers on the parallel bars, vault through the air and land with a forward roll. They learn how to move, walk, jump and do handstands on a 4-inch-wide balance beam and do it all with grace. 

Recently some of the young gymnasts volunteered to show us how they train. 

At the practice sessions, the girls help set up the room, moving thick protective floor mats to the proper configurations. Then as they practice on the bars or the beams or  flying off their running vaults, Keeley’s voice echoes, “Form, girls, form!”  or “The camera likes pointed toes,”  among other admonitions. 

Safety is critical and Keeley is next to each gymnast until he knows they have mastered how to fall if they need to and how to land safely.  

Jocelynn Beckman, 12 and a rising seventh grader at Smithfield Middle School, has been in Field of Dreams for eight months.

“I like Coach Barry, he’s like a grumpy grandfather,” she said. “If we don’t do our exercises, he gets frustrated – he expects the best from us.” 

Her blue eyes light up when she talks about competing with the Field of Dreams team in meets in North Carolina and in the AAU Age Group Nationals in Orlando, Florida. In May, five team members placed in the top ten in the All Around for their respective divisions at that event. 

“I love the vault – it’s the easiest for me,” she said.  “I scored a 9.8  on my vault in Orlando – and there were a lot of people there! 

Barry is justifiably proud of the youngsters, the confidence and skill they have developed.  A few of the girls climb to the top of the power tower, a scaffold-looking piece of equipment 12 feet high. As they poise to jump, two of the parents wait and watch from a small room open  to the gym.  Each of the girls takes her turn, confidently jumping off the tower and landing feet first on a mat below to finish with a forward roll.

Are the parents ever unnerved watching? 

Natasha Miller, watching her 8-year-old daughter, Siena, said, “I enjoy watching the girls in action, and although heights scare me, we trust him, learn to let him do what he does, and we see absolute progress.” 

Anthony Bowe, an Air Force pilot, watched his daughter Averi, also 8-years-old, and said “I’ve got zero experience in gymnastics and it’s scary watching them bounce around.” 

But now,  he added, after about a year of classes,  he can see confidence growing in the girls – and his own mind – as he watches them flip and how fast they can fly in the air and, he said, “I trust Barry’s process,”  

That trust speaks to the years of experience Keeley brings to his passion for gymnastics. 

Born in Hinsdale, a Chicago suburb,  Keeley was one of 12 children. To support the family, his father worked three jobs, including playing clarinet and sax with big  bands. Keeley was 14  and a freshman in high school, when his uncle, also a musician, gave him a basic clarinet. Keeley, who had never had a music lesson, wanted to play in the high school orchestra. 

The music director, swayed by Keeley’s resolve, agreed to weekly lessons, a place to practice every day at the school, and a position as 24th clarinet in the orchestra. At the end of the semester, the director held challenges for all the clarinet players and Keeley moved up to 2nd clarinet. 

That same year, a student teacher launched a gymnastics club for boys that grew into a school sponsored sport.  Keeley, a former baseball player and natural athlete,  joined the club and lettered in gymnastics for four years. 

As a senior Keeley played a 13-minute clarinet concerto, from memory, to win a full music scholarship to the University of Iowa. 

The university music curriculum was challenging. To relax he dropped by the gym to watch the school’s renowned men’s gymnastics team practice. The assistant coach, Bill Buck, a 1958 national champion and one of Keeley’s heroes, saw him and asked if he did gymnastics. 

“Yes,” said Keeley, “But not on the same level as those here.”

But Buck invited Keeley in, and he soon became part of the varsity squad. The pressure, however, of keeping up with music and gymnastics, both demanding, forced a decision at the end of  his sophomore year.  Forfeiting his music scholarship to major in physical education,  he excelled on the team and still played in the university symphony orchestra.

Loss of his scholarship meant living in a closet for a semester and borrowing, not buying, textbooks. It meant failing every exam because  he lacked study materials, but he graduated in 1965 with a 2.19 grade point average, a minor in music, a major in physical education and a lifelong love of gymnastics. 

In following years Keeley taught and coached  boys’ gymnastic teams at several high schools in Michigan and Illinois. At Wheaton Central High in Wheaton, Illinois, he was assigned a student assistant, John Belushi, a short but muscular wrestler and football player capable of subduing any rowdy students in Keeley’s physical education classes. 

“Belushi was funny even then, “ Keeley said of his assistant who later became a Hollywood star. 

During one class, however,  Belushi’s method of dealing with an obstinate, profane student was, after several tries at reasoning,  a quick forearm to the head which left the difficult student unconscious for a few minutes and Keeley out of a job. 

After that incident, Keeley started Gymnastics Unlimited, the first private club, he said, in a five-state area.

“I coached 5000 kids between 1967 and 1980 in two centers,” he said, “I had 13 national champions and one Olympic team member.”

But with a wife and two children, Keeley knew he couldn’t continue sleeping in the gym with his German Shepherd Salto.

“So, I sold the gym but kept Salto, went into finance and investments and made a lot of money over 31 years,” he said. 

In 2010 he was hired as an assistant boys’ gymnastics coach at Twistars, USA, a large gymnastics organization that trained some top-level gymnasts.  He also coached girls at the Twistar USA Summer Camps for seven years where he developed a strength building program. 

Traditionally, Keeley said,  male gymnasts were trained in strength as well as gymnastic skills – female gymnasts were not.  Keeley promotes strength training for girls as well and is proud to say that his girls are as strong as boy gymnasts.  

Keeley’s gymnastic career, performing and coaching, required physical and mental strength and a willingness to take a well-calculated risk, all of which led to the current Field of Dreams.  

Six years ago, with his own four children grown and his wife living in South Carolina, Keeley joined his son in Virginia Beach.  Unable to stay away from coaching, he took a position as program director and head coach at Windsor Gymnastics. In 2019, however, Marshall Green, a Navy medical officer with a farm on Field of Dreams Road,  offered to redo his barn so that his two daughters and other talented gymnasts could train there with Keeley. 

During a three-month renovation, the cows were moved out, the barn disinfected,  the floor painted, lighting and HVAC installed as well as thousands of dollars of gymnastic equipment to supplement the equipment that Keeley brought to the barn. Field of Dreams gymnastics started in 2020  with 13 boys and girls and Keeley making just enough money to cover his commute from Virginia Beach. 

Soon, however, COVID-19 struck, and Green left the Navy and moved his family to Lynchburg. Undeterred,   Keeley opened in another location in 2012, but that proved to be temporary as well.  Finally, with the help of some of his gymnasts’ parents including Nick and Julie Hess, he opened Field of Dreams in its current location in February 2023. 

Now, with his 45 young gymnasts, including 8 boys, he plans another dream –  an open-to-the-public show in the 3,500-square-foot gym that he will temporarily convert into a sound stage, complete with backdrop, lighting, sound equipment and spotlights. 

“This isn’t my first rodeo,” he said. “I’ve been a performer on various platforms and will do my best to create a wonderful setting for performers and audience alike.”

His inspiration springs from the renowned University of Iowa shows at its huge indoor pool. Gymnasts and synchronized swimmers performed together with gymnasts dropping from a trapdoor 40 feet overhead. He performed as a catcher for the trapeze act 35 feet above the water. As the tallest gymnast performing, his long arms were a popular target for flyers in the act.  

Recently, when asked if he, at 80, still has any of his gymnastic moves, Keeley walked to the rings. The girls practicing in the gym stopped to watch. 

“Watch this, it’s only going to happen once,” he warned as he curled his 5-foot, 11-inch frame into an upright handstand on the rings. 

To a chorus of cheers, he swung down, but checking a photo of the move, decided to do better.  Grabbing the rings,  he swung back up and smiled as he performed an even straighter handstand. 

“It doesn’t just happen – It’s a God thing,” he said – not just the handstand, but his whole life and career.