High school gymnastics: Camas coach soars to new heights

Carol Willson works in international travel, but home is Clark County with family and her gymnastics family

CAMAS — She used to live in Montana and commute to work in Boston.

Turns out, that was just preparation for her life today, living in Clark County while commuting to the likes of Amsterdam or Tokyo.

Camas gymnastics coach Carol Willson is so much more than a two-time state champion coach. She also works in international travel, and helps children in need. Photo by Mike Schultz
Camas gymnastics coach Carol Willson is so much more than a two-time state champion coach. She also works in international travel, and helps children in need. Photo by Mike Schultz

She just has to be flexible in her line of work. Guess that’s life as a gymnastics coach, too. 

As the Camas High School gymnastics coach, Carol Willson has built a state power. 

The Papermakers have won the past two state team titles and are looking for a three-peat when the Class 4A championship meet begins Friday at Sammamish High School in Bellevue. (The 3A/2A/1A meet begins Thursday.)

When Willson took over the program seven years ago, the team had seven gymnasts. This year, the Papermakers had 40. (Plus, Willson and her assistants coach five athletes from Washougal). It was such a large group, the team had to split up practice times. One group would make it this day, another group would come the next day, for example.

That takes a lot of planning. That is another of Willson’s strengths, though. Structure is a necessity for being a mom of a large family while balancing a career in the airline industry.

Carol and her husband Fred have four grown children, plus they have adopted four children — now ages 13, 12, 10 and 10.  The two 10-year olds have lived with the family for years but were officially adopted just last week, on Valentine’s Day.

Willson’s faith is the driving force for the passions in her life: Family, gymnastics, and aviation.

Camas coach Carol Willson gives Annika Affleck a hug after a recent gymnastics meet. Willson said the key is that she and her assistants show love to the athletes first. The sport comes second. Photo by Mike Schultz
Camas coach Carol Willson gives Annika Affleck a hug after a recent gymnastics meet. Willson said the key is that she and her assistants show love to the athletes first. The sport comes second. Photo by Mike Schultz

She started working as a flight attendant in 1987 soon after she graduated from the University of Montana and has never tried to land work anywhere else. Back then, she was with Northwest Airlines, which would later be absorbed into Delta Airlines after a merger. And yes, she lived in Billings, Mont., then flew to Boston to work her shifts there, then returned to Billings for her off days.

“My best friend was a flight attendant. She said, ‘You should try flying.’ I said, ‘What the heck?’ I applied and got the job with the intent that her and I would fly together,” Willson recalled. “As soon as I got out of training, she was pregnant and her husband had her quit. So we never got to fly together, and here I am all these years later.”

With her seniority, she has a lot of say in her schedule.

“It’s not your normal 40-hour week,” she says with a smile.

She flies a lot more when it is not gymnastics season. During the winter, she might fly just a couple times a month. 

A few weeks back, she and the Papermakers had a meet on a Saturday. On Sunday, Willson flew to Amsterdam. She was back in time for practice on a Tuesday.

“I still love it,” Willson said. “If you ask any flight attendant, they will say they love people and they love the job. The truth is, I do love to travel, and I love being around people.

“It’s really truly about taking care of your customers.”

Through decades of work, and the benefits of working for an airline, Willson has traveled to dozens of countries. No, she said, she has never counted the exact number. 

Nowadays, besides Amsterdam, she finds herself working the Japan route, or maybe New York City. In the summer, she heads to London. 

Home, though, used to be Montana and now it is right here in Southwest Washington. 

Willson was a gymnast from the third grade and into college, on scholarship at Montana. Until, that is, she broke both feet at the same time, on the vault.

“Everybody has to give it up at some point,” she says now.

After college, she started working and started a family. A few years later, she returned to the sport as a judge. Then she got into coaching at the club level.

She and her husband moved to Clark County in the 1990s to be closer to his family.

Shea McGee, of Camas High School, is the defending state champion in the Class 4A all-around competition. The 4A state gymnastics meet begins Friday in Bellevue. Photo by Mike Schultz
Shea McGee, of Camas High School, is the defending state champion in the Class 4A all-around competition. The 4A state gymnastics meet begins Friday in Bellevue. Photo by Mike Schultz

Willson was a club coach at VEGA, Vancouver Elite Gymnastics Academy. She never knew that would lead to the high school job one day.

“I had a young group of kids when I was coaching at VEGA. They became high schoolers,” Willson recalled. “There was an opening. I had maintained relationships with their families. They said, ‘You need to take the job.’ There, it all began.”

Now, they are two-time state champions.

“The first one, it felt like, for us, like it was our Olympic moment,” Willson said. “It was pretty amazing.”

The only drawback to the state meet is the season will be finished.

“I just love them,” Willson said. “They’re just fun to be around. We have a great time. I miss them. We get off that bus after state, and it’s goodbye.”

Until it’s time for goodbye this season, it is time for this opportunity, this shot at winning three in a row. 

“I think they’re ready,” Willson said. “They haven’t peaked yet.”

The key, Willson said, is that the sport is not the No. 1 priority.

“We love them first, and gymnastics is second,” Willson said of her coaching philosophy. “We have a lot of fun, and then they work because they like coming.”

She said she is always trying to provide her athletes more than the fundamentals of the sport.

“Our theme this year has been about teaching them to learn to paddle someone else’s boat,” Willson said.

When someone is in need, step up and help. Be there for them.

The team has dealt with some serious struggles this season, as well. A volunteer coach lost a loved one. A gymnast’s parent received some difficult health news.

The Papermakers have rallied around one another. 

“It’s been awesome to watch them grow,” Willson said. 

The Camas Papermakers are hoping to win their third consecutive state team title at the WIAA 4A state gymnastics meet this week. Photo by Mike Schultz
The Camas Papermakers are hoping to win their third consecutive state team title at the WIAA 4A state gymnastics meet this week. Photo by Mike Schultz

Willson is more than talk, of course. After raising four children, she and Fred have adopted four children who were in need. They have had more than a dozen children in their home as foster parents, too.

After 31 years of marriage, Carol and Fred make quite a team, too.

“We both love kids. We’re both extremely pro-life, and we both believe in community service and want to help,” Willson said.

It is a winning philosophy for her family.

And her winning ways transfer over to her other family, the gymnasts of Camas High School. 


WIAA Class 4A and 3A/2A/1A Gymnastics Meets

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday

At Sammamish High School, Bellevue

The 3A/2A/1A meet is Thursday and Friday. Here are the list of area qualifiers.

Columbia River (Qualified as a team):

Kendall Ball, Emma Garrow, Grace Hopkins, Naomi Kirkwood, Rachel MacArthur, Rubee Mickel, Sydney Stahl, Lauren Stewart, Xia Webster, Jaycee Williams

Evergreen:

Alannis Rax (bars, floor)

Hudson’s Bay:

Ellie Anderson (all-around)

Mountain View:

Sophie Wong (vault, bars, beam, floor)

Prairie:

Sadie Kienzie (vault)

Delaney Hoffman (bars, beam, floor)

Ridgefield:

Katelyn Greenwald (vault, beam)

Kyra Blanchard (vault)

Joslyn Mayberry (bars, beam, floor)

Breanna Koenninger (beam)

Washougal:

Shaela Ausmus (all-around)

Kaitlynn Stevens (vault, bars, floor)

The 4A meet is Friday and Saturday. Here are the list of area qualifiers.

Camas (Qualified as a team)

Shea McGee (the defending state all-around champion); Alyssa Shibata (sixth in all-around in 2019); Peyton Cody (eighth in all-around in 2019), plus Annika Affleck, Olivia Bane, Siena Brophy, Emma Crawford, Lili Ford, Amber harris, Ali Hubbard, Morgan MacIntyre, Julia Marsh, Lauren Meyer, Cate Neill, Rachel Nicacio, and Lizzy Wing.

Heritage:

Brooklynn Kinder (beam, floor)

Skyview:

Katelyn Epperly (all-around)

Madison Summers (vault, bars, beam)

Riley LeCocq (vault, beam, floor)

Allison Yajko (bars, floor)

Abigail Tully (bars, floor)

Sarah Bilyeu (bars, beam)

Union:

Kayja Jacques (vault, bars, beam)

Lainie Hendricks (vault, floor)

Liberty Scott (vault)

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About The Author

Paul Valencia joins ClarkCountyToday.com after more than two decades of newspaper experience. He became the face of high school sports coverage in Clark County during his 17 years at The Columbian. Before moving to Vancouver, Paul worked at Oregon daily newspapers in Pendleton, Roseburg, and Salem. A graduate of David Douglas High School in Portland, Paul enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving three years as a soldier/journalist. He and his wife Jenny recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. They have a son who has a passion for karate and Minecraft. Paul’s hobbies include: Watching the Raiders play football, reading about the Raiders playing football, and waiting to watch and read about the Raiders playing football.

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