A memorial has been announced for beloved, former University of New Mexico gymnastics coach and professor Rusty Mitchell. He passed away at age 80 at the end of February.
Mitchell will be honored at Johnson Gym, a space he called home for many years, on March 18 at 3 p.m.
Mitchell was instrumental in leading UNM’s men gymnastics team to No. 1 rankings and multiple NCAA Championship, plus 11 Western Athletic Conference titles. He also helped train 16 NCAA champions and 53 All-American gymnasts. It’s a star-studded athletic legacy for the Lobos, from 1966 to 1999.
Professor and Coordinator of Exercise Science Len Kravitz knew Miitchell for 50 years. He was also one of the many lives he touched, on the Lobo men gymnastics team.
“Rusty valued all his gymnasts. He wanted to make an impact on our lives in gymnastics, physical fitness, strength and mental toughness. He encouraged us to strive to be the best that we could be,” he said.
Although the program was eventually cut from UNM, Mitchell maintained his commitment to athletics and health at the university.
"Rusty had a larger-than-life personality, and his gymnastic and coaching talents were legendary. In addition to what Rusty has done for each of us as our coach, we’ve heard over the years of many stories indicating how he also supported his team members in ways that others were not aware of at the time. He has had a positive influence on all that have had the honor of knowing him," former UNM gymnast Tom Galioto said.
He built a strong rapport among faculty, staff and students in the Department of Health, Exercise and Sports Sciences.
Mitchell had a flawless resume when it came to mentoring the next generation of students and gymnasts.
This was a man who performed the first ever successful double back somersault, impressing millions at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. His time at the Olympics continued as an Assistant Coach for the U.S. Olympic Men’s Gymnastic Team twice, while also leading other male gymnast teams to victory at other world competitions. His decorated record also includes his own 10-time streak as an All-American and Southern Illinois University’s Most Outstanding Gymnast while enrolled there.
"Here is an example of Rusty’s love for the sport and desire to help anyone interested in gymnastics. I was Rusty’s first walk-on gymnast when he first came to UNM," UNM alumnus Ray Mondragon said. "Even though I had no gymnastic experience (only a PE class) he gave me a chance to try out for the team. Because of Rusty, when I came to practice I never felt like I was not supposed to be there. He gave me the same attention that he did all of his official team members. As a result, I made the team and competed for 3 years."
"The moment Rusty walked into Johnson gym for the first time, the atmosphere changed. Our good ole boys fun romps were over. He gave us the pep talk with an introduction of a double back. That cemented his credentials in our minds. Little did we understand the depth of commitment he would require. As a team we zoomed up in performance while Rusty pulled our abilities out, driving us to do better and more. He was foremost a coach and forever a mentor. He taught us to strut and gave us the reason to," Robert Clayton said.
“As a physical education teacher at UNM for 50 years. Rusty looked forward to going to work each day knowing that he could make a difference in a student’s personal life through gymnastics,” Kravitz said.
The Rusty Mitchell Memorial will be Saturday, March 18 at 3 p.m. Johnson Gym doors open at 2 p.m. A reception will also follow. If you can’t make it, you can also appreciate his life and legacy at the Albuquerque Sports Hall of Fame, the UNM Alumni Lettermen’s Hall of Honor and the National Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
Instead of flowers, Mitchell’s family wishes that donations be made to the Coach Rusty Mitchell Endowed P.E. Teacher Scholarship.