Sally Silverstein was raised in Norwalk. But she grew up — literally and figuratively — at the Westport YMCA.
She swam with the Water Rats, competed on the gymnastics team, and worked as a counselor and swim instructor at Camp Mahackeno.
Sally knew legendary director Matt Johnson well. A few years after college — when she’d taught phys. ed. at Norwalk High for a couple of years, and started raising her own children — he called.
He wanted to grow the Y’s small gymnastics program. He invited her to see.
Class was held in the upper gymnasium of the then-downtown building. There was no equipment. She figured, why not?
Staples High School was getting rid of its gymnastics apparatus. She took a van, and picked up vaults, beams and bars.
The equipment had to be set up each day, then broken down after each session. But Sally was all in. Quickly, the program grew.
After Johnson retired, new CEO Dotty Kyle offered Sally a full-time job as sports and recreation director. Soon, she took over the dance department too.
The gymnastics program moved to the 3rd floor of the old Y. The ceiling was 12 feet high. Sally’s gymnasts were good. She worried they’d leap off the high bar and hit it. The Y built skylights there, for extra room.
The long path to a new YMCA at the Mahackeno campus was controversial for many reasons — including elimination of the gymnastics center, for budget reasons.
Y officials wanted to end the program altogether. But parents and staff fought to keep it. Space was found in Norwalk. The program thrived.
Finally, a sparlking gymnastics center was built during Phase 2 at the “new” Y. At 11,000 square feet, it’s nearly double the Norwalk space — and triple the downtown YMCA.
Sally is a firm believer in the importance of the gymnastics program. Beyond coordination, it teaches importance lessons like discipline, organization and accountability. And, she says, those all carry over into enhanced academic performance.
She’s proud too of the family environment she’s created. Parents are eager to help, and children know that they have a warm, embracing home at the Westport Y Gymnastics Center.
COVID has taken a toll on the program. Some youngsters have been in gymnastics for 2 years, yet only now compete against other teams. When parents came — finally — to the holiday exhibition, it was the first time for many they’d even seen the new Y facility.
Earlier this month — after 34 years directing the gymnastics program — Sally retired. On her last day, she sat everyone in a circle and asked them to share their favorite experience.
Because of the pandemic, younger gymnasts had never traveled on Sally’s trips across the country, and to Europe. They had never marched in a Washington parade, or gone to Olympic trials. They listened in awe to the stories of her older gymnasts.
As she retires, Sally holds those memories close. She also thinks of her staff — another family she created over the years. Like Sally, many grew up in the Y program. “They made everything we did possible, she says gratefully.
“I wouldn’t have stayed if the community hadn’t been so wonderful,” she says. “Parents — and others — always wanted to help.”
Among those others: Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. They always covered expenses for youngsters who could not afford a trip, or new gymnastics outfits.
(Newman knew Sally well. When she took down equipment at the old Y, it was so the actor could play badminton. If there was a fundraising bake sale in the building, he always bought a brownie.)
For 34 years, Sally has directed, coached and taught 7 days a week. She’s too young and energetic not to keep working at something. She will take a bit of time off though, before figuring out what’s next. She may give back to a hospital, which has helped care for a sick family member for many years.
She looks forward to taking her grandchildren to Disney World, spending time with her 99-year-old mother, and her husband of 41 years, Tim — “my best friend.”
“I still love the Y,” Sally says.
After 34 years of service — and many more, as a growing-up kid — Sally Silverstein deserves the thanks of a grateful Westport Weston Family YMCA.
And of the greater community too. Which is why she is this week’s “06880” Unsung Hero of the Week. Congratulations, Sally!
(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email email@example.com)