'A Saving Grace': UNC Coach Derek Galvin Leaves His Mark on the Gymnastics Community

The pioneer of the Tar Heels' gymnastics program, Galvin retires after 39 years having left behind an inspiring legacy in Chapel Hill.
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It was 1981, a time period so different from the world today.

Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt a few months after being sworn in as the 40th president of the United States. The first Space Shuttle launched, and Reagan appointed the first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, to the Supreme Court. MTV went on air for the first time, debuting “Video Killed the Radio Star'' by The Buggles. And Michael Jordan was just a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But the future Charlotte Hornets owner wasn’t the only one who began a legendary career at the first public university. A young yet eager Irishman named Derek Galvin returned to his alma mater, UNC, that same year as the third gymnastics coach in school history, but the first and only head coach since the women’s team became a NCAA recognized sport.

Galvin has been at the helm of the program for 39 years, reaching an overall record of 434-272-1. He’s a 2017 inductee into the USA Gymnastics Region 8 Hall of Fame, a five-time East Atlantic Gymnastics League Coach of the Year (a league he helped create) and has received three Southeast regional coach of the year awards.

The Tar Heels and Galvin have won five EAGL titles since 2002, including back-to-back championships in 2010 and 2011, and have reached NCAA regionals in 12 of the last 18 seasons. But his accolades are just mere statistics; Galvin pioneered the program, building it into the sport the nation sees it as today.

UNC gymnastics coach Derek Galvin

“He clearly has leadership qualities that have made a difference in galvanizing his sport,” says UNC women’s soccer head coach Anson Dorrance. “There's nothing that he has ever suggested or done that is nothing but classy. And, he's done nothing but promote his wonderful sport… He wanted to do everything he could to continue to pioneer his sport, and then basically, he did.”

Galvin is described as a ‘saving grace’ by his former gymnasts, because his ability to see his athletes as people first drastically contrasted many coaches in the elite and Olympic community. But, most importantly, he has been described as one of the leading voices for diversity, inclusion and mental health, setting an example for the UNC athletic department.

Now, after 39 years, Galvin is finally stepping away from the program he built. His impact has influenced generations of athletes and coaches.

“If you trace the gymnastics program back through the years, I don't think there's ever a place within the program that Derek hasn't impacted, whether it's equipment, the gym, getting the new gym, working on that piece of fundraising,” said Jenny Levy, the UNC women’s lacrosse head coach. “He's the ultimate leader.

“If you ever look at [Abraham] Lincoln, he did everything. He was in the trenches with his guys, and leading from the trenches where you're willing to roll up your sleeves and get dirty, there's a lot of nobility in that. That is special for Derek. I think he's just willing to do things and will never ask anybody else to do something that he’s not willing to do.”

‘Forrest Gump of gymnastics’

Galvin was born in Dublin, and when he and his family moved to Arlington, Va., when he was 10 in 1963, he stood out in more ways than one.

He was one of the smaller kids in his fourth grade class, and it remained that way throughout middle school. He didn’t understand American sports like football or baseball. And he had a thick Irish accent despite briefly living in Canada as a nine-year-old and in California.

He just felt different, and was made fun of by a few kids, Galvin said, which led to him talking less in order to avoid the teasing. It became a source of motivation because he “wanted to be better than some of the kids that enjoyed teasing” him.

One of the first things his mom did once they moved to Arlington was enroll Galvin into an after-school tumbling and gymnastics program at the local elementary school. And, that’s how he “settled into being in America.” It wasn’t until March of his senior year of high school that he became a U.S. citizen, and his parents the year prior.

One of his motivations to do so was to get into college. His parents had the equivalent of a 10th-grade education before starting work, because when they were growing up in Ireland, it was primarily the people from wealthy families who could attend college.

Galvin attended UNC and pursued a psychology degree because he wanted to learn how to inspire athletes as he was coaching on the side. He competed on the Tar Heels’ men’s gymnastics team before its discontinuation in 1974, and graduated in 1976, taking a year off between his sophomore and junior year in order to pay off part of his college debt and establish North Carolina residency in order to lower the cost of his tuition.

“One of the ways that I did that was through teaching and coaching gymnastics, and the man who had been my coach at Carolina when I was on the men's team, his name was Fred Sanders,” Galvin recalled. “He had started the first private gymnastics training center in the state of North Carolina, here in Chapel Hill.”

Galvin worked a total of three jobs during that time period—coaching and teaching gymnastics, delivering pizzas for one of the first pizza delivery businesses in North Carolina and working construction for a local brick mason company.

After graduating, Galvin stayed in the gymnastics community, working as an assistant coach under Sanders while pursuing his masters degree. He even had the opportunity to travel to Germany for an international exhibition with a young group of gymnasts.

“That was at a time when gymnastics was really beginning to expand here in the U.S.,” Galvin said. “After the ‘72 Olympics with Olga Korbut, that's when gymnastics started to really grow. So many little girls got to see that on TV, and then with Nadia Comaneci in 1976, private gym clubs started opening up around the country.”

From there, things took off for Galvin, and it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

“Years ago, I described it as being the Forrest Gump of gymnastics,” Galvin said. “He's just in the right place and things happen. That was the way my gymnastics experience was.”

UNC gymnastics coach Derek Galvin celebrates

‘A renaissance man’

When Galvin joined as a coach in spring 1981, the UNC gymnastics program had practically nothing.

It was the first year Fetzer Gym opened, the team’s new home. When he walked in that first day, Galvin recalled the equipment being piled up in the middle of the gym because they had not put the surface down on the floor yet.

That same year, women’s gymnastics became a NCAA recognized sport.

“It was one of my Forrest Gump moments,” Galvin says with a laugh.

The Tar Heels had a high-caliber team in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, one of six within the state of North Carolina. But once Galvin became the head of the program, he put an emphasis on academics and being good citizens of the community.

“There were a lot of schools that had more than we did, and so that became our focus,” Galvin said. “I knew that if we're going to be competing at the top, there are some things that we need, and so I started working to get those things.”

Galvin joined the NCAA Southeast Region Advisory Committee in 1982 and served as committee chairman for several years, being part of the original group that created the format for NCAA regionals. He went on to help form the EAGL, which was created after there weren’t enough schools with a gymnastics team remaining in the ACC.

Not to mention, he physically built the program while teaching in the PE department.

“If we didn't have the money in our budget to buy it, I would either build it or figure out a way of bartering for it,” Galvin said. “We went from having one balance beam, some panel mats and a few landing mats to getting more of the equipment that we needed.”

His wife, Debra, helped him run the meets, and his students would help him build some innovative equipment.

“At some schools, they would buy a new spring for the gymnastics team,’ Galvin said. “We didn't have the money to do that so I came up with a design. I actually ended up selling the design to a gymnastics equipment company in exchange for some equipment.”

He would even help set up and tear down the equipment after meets, a practice he continued to this day.

“Whenever they had a meet, he was one of the main people putting the mats down to make sure the mats were in the right spot or the bars were in the right spot” UNC softball head coach Donna Papa said. “He did all that and then coached on top of it.”

Former Tar Heel gymnast Brooke Buffington described Galvin as ‘a renaissance man’ because he was bright and capable of anything. After all, he briefly worked for a company that subcontracted for the Department of Defense before coming to coach at UNC. But, as his former gymnasts attest, you wouldn’t know he was being pulled in so many different directions. He was always present.

“He is seriously the hardest working man, and he never complained about anything,” said Barbi Burris, who competed at UNC starting in 1983. “We didn't know a lot of the other things he did. I mean, he was working night jobs, and he was stocking shelves at night and teaching classes and training us and doing camps and he just never stopped. He just gave 100% all the time.”

Former gymnasts, like Buffington and Morgan Lane, remembered how he adjusted individual gymnasts’ practice schedules to accommodate their classes, putting an emphasis on them excelling academically. Others mentioned how he coached from a place of compassion rather than yelling and belittling like their previous elite-level coaches, and cited it as why they chose UNC over powerhouses like Duke, Stanford or Yale.

“To go from some of those private clubs to Derek was a saving grace,” Tammy Goldfisher, his first recruit, said, “and it made the sport fun again.”

Rising senior Lily Dean recalled how she battled with anxiety during her sophomore year and how Galvin wanted to learn more about it in order to better support her and the team.

“To know that a coach is there when his gymnasts are going through a tough time, knowing I could just go into his office and be like, ‘Hey, I’m not in a great mental space,’ he would be like, ‘Let me help you out,’” Dean said. “He was always so open to learn from us.”

Galvin had a habit of connecting with everyone he came in contact with—gymnasts, other athletes, family members, coaches and even administration. UNC women’s tennis head coach Brian Kalbas ‘marveled at’ Galvin’s admiration.

“There's something to be said, especially on the female side of things,” Kalbas said, “for letting each person on your team know how well they're doing, how much you care about them, and how much you appreciate the hard work they put in.”

Former gymnast Lisa Companioni echoed Kalbas’s sentiment and said everyone’s differences were celebrated. Galvin would stress that “nobody stood alone, even if you don’t get along.” He was and still is a “guiding light,” she added.

Natalie Valpiani remembered how Galvin arrived at the gym each day with a twinkle in his eye, pushing a cart down the hall of Fetzer Gym. It carried a stereo, practice schedule and conditioning routines, and he would greet the team with a, “Let’s play gymnastics.” While things like the stereo have changed over the years, the concept is the same.

“He would fight for what's right and fight for his program,” Levy said. “When people look at Carolina, why we have the success that we have, especially in the nonrevenue Olympic sport arena and especially in the women's side, it's just not by accident.

“There's a lot of people that have followed Derek and have learned from him, how to do it and how to be successful.”

UNC Derek Galvin gymnastics coach

‘North Star’

When the school’s athletic department debuted the FORevHER Tar Heels campaign—an initiative to create a community to empower UNC’s women student-athletes—in 2019, now-interim gymnastics head coach Marie Case Denick said you could feel the power in the room when Galvin’s part in the video was aired because of the raw honesty in his statement.

“It’s time that we do more,” Galvin said in the clip. “The female athletes on this campus, the female students on this campus, have been contributing not only during the time that they were here but beyond their time at Carolina.

“What this new program is going to do is provide more resources to further encourage young women to become leaders. That’s what this is about. If we don’t do it, shame on us. The fact that we’ve taken the lead, shame on everyone else who doesn’t follow.”

Galvin has long backed up his words with actions. Sixteen years ago, the UNC gymnastics program hosted one of the first cancer awareness meets. 

Then during the 2016–17 season, 4,071 spectators stood in solidarity in Carmichael Arena, some wearing rainbow shirts or waving flags, for one of the first meets in the nation to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community.

Galvin and the team decided to expand the event the following year, inviting campus organizations such as the LGBTQ Center, The Black Student Movement, the UNC American Indian Center, the Safe Zone program and the Carolina Women’s Center, to honor marginalized individuals on Equality Night.

Then came the Mental Health Awareness meet in 2019, a topic that hits close to home for Galvin and gymnasts. “Mental Health: More than a Tar Heel,” a campaign video created by UNC student-athletes in an effort to destigmatize the conversation, debuted that February night.

And here, in 2020, Galvin and the gymnastics program took their social justice efforts a step further by writing a statement in response to George Floyd’s murder, and it was one of the few from the university that used the words “racial injustices” and “murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, and Breonna Taylor.”

“For my grandchildren and all of the alums and everybody that’s on the team this year, working with the team on that statement was the pinnacle [of my career],” says Galvin.

And while he’s praised for being one of the first to speak up, Galvin is the first to admit that doing so isn’t always enough.

“What I realized after George Floyd's murder in talking with some of the young women on our team, I realized that I didn't completely get it,” Galvin said. “That it’s not enough to just shine a light on something. But, we really need to go farther. We need to act beyond just shining a light.

“We need to be involved in making a change.”

By taking those first steps of having meets in honor of these communities, Galvin said they were trying to bring change in an ‘uplifting way.’

“What I've come to realize, particularly over the last several weeks, is that I could have taken a stronger position,” Galvin said. “I could have taken it a bit farther. Now whether the university would have been comfortable with that, I don't know. But, for the sake of the young women in our program and other Black [students] on campus or LGBTQ community members on campus, it's not enough to just send a note saying, ‘We support you.’”

“...I'm hopeful that some of those things that we've done over the years encouraged members of our team to use their voice and take it even further.”

And that is Galvin’s legacy—helping athletes find their voices and become leaders in their community. Each step he’s taken throughout his life and coaching career has been an effort to value each person for who they are above all else.

Dorrance described it best by calling Galvin the ‘North Star’ of the athletic department, commenting how the coach embodied eulogy virtues.

“It is the way you should live your life,” Dorrance said. “He has been a North Star for all of us in the athletic department on the way we should conduct our lives, and it's the way you treat people. It's the way you represent yourself. It's the sacrifices you make for your team.

“And in his case, his team is the overall athletic department.”

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