Catching Up with NGF Recipient Jim Unger

Jim Unger

Former UNL Varsity and All American Gymnast Jim Unger was one of the NGF's first recipients. Jim was injured in a freak bicycle accident and is confined to a wheel chair which was provided by the generous supporters of the NGF.

Today, he leads an active lifestyle and is an outspoken supporter of what the Nebraska Greats Foundation can do to assist those in need.

Many who follow the Nebraska Greats Foundation know of how the NGF assisted you after your accident. Update us on how you are doing and what you are doing?

I am doing great--many Healthcare workers, and others think that I am a paraplegic rather than a quadriplegic. After going through somewhat tedious training, testing, and red tape, I am now able to drive! This has freed up a lot of opportunities to get things done.

You competed for the University of Nebraska Gymnastics team when the sport was starting to boom internationally. Did you ever think it would become THAT big?

When I competed at Nebraska, there were 216 schools with gymnastics. Now that Iowa dropped its program last week, sadly there are only 14 left. Obviously the budget is the main reason, along with Title IX. However, since gymnastics is an Olympic sport, we hope that it will be retained by those remaining schools.

Over the last 40 years, Nebraska has dominated men's gymnastics why is that?

Gymnastics exploded in the 70's due to more coverage, equipment advances, and Kurt Thomas and Bart Conner winning internationally. Of all the advances in equipment, the most exponential were the spring tumbling floor, and the in-ground foam pits. Nebraska was the first college to install a pit, in the Devaney Sports Center. The pits allow learning of double somersaults until the athlete has mastered the skill, before performing it on a mat landing.

Did you know that on the 1984 men's team, Olympic gold medalists, 4 out of the 7 competitors were from Nebraska: Jim Hartung, Phil Cahoy, Scott Johnson, and alternate Jim Mikus. The 1980 team that "didn't go" had Coach Francis Allen, Jim Hartung, Phil Cahoy, and Larry Gerard all from Nebraska.

Talk about how the NGF helped you.

I was one of the first to be helped. In my case, they generously provided me with physical therapy equipment and a motorized chair...which has been beneficial for my circulation and muscle tone, as well as keeping my hopes alive for medical advances to walk again (and play golf!).

A lot of athletes are reluctant to ask for help. There are many out there who probably need assistance with the medical issues, what would you say to them?

I would encourage other athletes in need to be sure to ask the Nebraska Greats Foundation for help! We all go through tough times in life, and whether yours is financial, medical, or other, please reach out.

You competed when most young boys were playing football, basketball and baseball. What got you started in gymnastics?

I tried out for all sports, and did pretty well. When we had to hop up on the pommel horse and do leg cuts, or walk on our hands on the parallel bars, Coach Fox (Jr. High PE teacher) liked the way I could keep my legs straight, and point my toes. That was how I started in gymnastics, just during the season.

Our high school teams won 2 state championship, and were recently inducted into the Lincoln Southeast HS Hall of Fame. But, it wasn't until college that I trained gymnastics year-round.

I feel very fortunate that I ended up getting a full athletic scholarship to pay for college. I ended up becoming Francis Allen's first All-American; I didn't know that I would end up teaching kids for 40 years...I feel very blessed.

Posted in NGF Recipients, University of Nebraska Lincoln, Where Are They Now?.