MIDVALE — Paul Hunt has had a good run.
Since 1974, he has spent the last four-plus decades teaching young people the gymnastic skills he learned as a kid that have allowed him to make a living doing what he’s been passionate about since he was a child growing up in the central Illinois town of Decatur.
His business had thrived for years, drawing an estimated 500 students to Hunt’s Gymnastics Academy, which has been located in Midvale since the late 1980s. But early this year, like so many small businesses across the country, his was stymied by the coronavirus outbreak that shuttered his studio for over two months and would cut his revenues dramatically after reopening, forcing him into the realization that 2020 would be the year his dream would have to end.
“I had taught gymnastics all the way through high school and a little bit part time through college,” he said. “That’s all I wanted to do is open a gymnastic studio.”
Hunt competed mostly in the floor exercise, rings and vault as a member of the University of Illinois men’s gymnastics squad. In 1969, he was Illinois’ state all-around gymnastics champion, before becoming the 1971 Big 10 floor exercise champ and the U.S. national floor exercise champion the following year.
He came west after graduating on the advice of a former coach.
“My gymnastic coach at the university was getting ready to retire and they were into skiing, so during the (1976 Olympic) Games in Montreal we got in the car and we drove out to California and back from Illinois, looking for a place that could possibly have skiing and enough population of young kids to do gymnastics,” he said. “We mostly drove through Colorado, not knowing that Utah had mountains and snow. But he came out here skiing with some friends and he called us and said this looks like the place you guys want to be. So, we came out, looked and then we opened a gym shortly after that.”
Over the years, Hunt, 68, became well-known as a coach and instructor, but he also performed with numerous Olympic champions’ tours and garnered acclaim for his exploits as a gymnastics clown under the alias, “Paulette Huntesque” — a “world-famous gymnastics comedian.” His routines have several million views on YouTube and he has been featured on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and “America’s Funniest Videos” as well as performed at NBA halftime shows for the Utah Jazz.
For years, he found joy and passion working in the local gymnastics community. That is until the beginning of 2020 when things abruptly started to change.
“The kids that had asthma and those types of problems, most of them dropped out in January when there were rumors of a virus coming out that was potentially dangerous to that type (of condition),” Hunt said. “Then after March, we had to close down for 2 1⁄2 months. And then when we reopened, it was like half of what we had normally had plus the number of kids we could allow on the floor at one time was a lot less than what we normally could do.”
Having been involved in gymnastics for his entire adult life, he began to see that the days for his business surviving were numbered.
“We applied for some (federal) grants, but I mean it’s not enough to carry us over with the number of kids and (expenses) that we have coming through the program right now,” he said. “We didn’t know when we closed down in March how long we were going to have to be closed down or anything, so potentially we had thought depending on how long we had to be closed there, if we’d even be able to reopen again.”
Recently, he decided to close up shop at the end of the month and start figuring out what to do in his newfound, unexpected retirement.
“I’m excited and I’m sad,” he said. “My daughter works with me and I was hoping to be able to leave the business so that she could work and make a living at it, but I’m not going to be able to do that. I guess I’ll just end up being able to retire and not have to work.”
As for what that life of leisure will actually look like, Hunt is still working on that.
“At one time, I thought I would die coaching. I couldn’t imagine my life without the gym,” he said. “Then, when we closed down for 2 1⁄2 months, it was like, I will be OK. It came a little bit sooner than I thought it would, but it’s time.”