John Van Aalten had to be a person who went into a gym one day and something strange happened. He fell in love with gymnastics and, fortunately for all, a knowledgeable mentor was nearby to help orchestrate that love. John recently celebrated his 90th birthday and should be proud of the life he has shared with literally thousands of prospective and successful gymnasts. He stayed with the sport even when world events twice disallowed him to participate in the Olympic Games. He was a hero, fighting with the English as a member of the Dutch Brigade. He has been known as John Van Aalten since his immigration to the U.S., but in the Netherlands, “Van” means “from”, so he may have been known as John from the town of Aalten. John says this process of names comes from the time of Napoleon, and, he says with a wink, he knew Napoleon well. John Van Aalten’s contributions to our sport were tremendous, especially to the New York YMCA and to those who were recipients of his gymnastic wisdom and went on represent the U.S. in national and international competitions. For all you done and all you’ve helped, John, we thank you.
Olympic Games: Van Aalten made the Dutch Olympic squad in 1936 and 1940; however, due to world circumstances beyond his control, he was denied the opportunity to compete. In 1936, at age 20, John qualified to represent the Netherlands in the Berlin Olympics, but due to the political climate at the time, the Netherlands Gymnastics Federation decided not to send the team to the games. The coach of the team was to be Arthur Gander, the founder of the FIG. In 1940, John again qualified for the Dutch Olympic Gymnastics Team. The Games were to be held in Tokyo but were rescheduled due to Japanese aggression in Asia. Finally, the 1940 Games were cancelled. Personal: John lived in Belgium and at age 14 began training with Belgian Olympian Felix Kempeneers. He retained his Dutch citizenship, however. During WWII, John served three years with the Dutch Brigade, serving with the English Army. After the war, he immigrated to the US and lived in New York City with his family, (1948). He had promised his coach in Europe he would continue in gymnastics as a coach, so he volunteered to coach the youth program at the West Side YMCA. His involvement with the YMCA program lasted for three decades. Having come from Europe, John was an early advocate of AA gymnastics, an important concept for the development of our Olympic Teams. He also helped the YMCA office, located in New York at he time, to develop materials for the Y’s gymnastics program. Coaching: Van Aalten coached Abie Grossfeld (USGHOF, 1979) as a youth and trained him continuously until Abie made his first Olympic team. Later, Grossfeld coached the USA Team to an Olympic gold medal, (1984). Other YMCA champions and notables coached by Aalten were John Pesha, Dick Mohr, Harold Hauben, Myron Gluck, Pat Bird, et al. The West Side “Y” won seven national YMCA titles in eight years under Van Aalten’s coaching leadership. Judging: John was also quite active as a judge, having judged some national championship meets and numerous local competitions. After he retired, John collaborated with William Buffa to write the Comprehensive Gymnastics Guide that was published in June 1973. Family: m. Sara (d). Children: Richard and Vivian. Grandchildren: Seth, Jared, and Jaime.
Sources: Aalten information courtesy of A. Bruce Frederick, author of Who’s Who and Was Who in American Gymnastics and Jerry Wright, author of Gymnastics Who’s Who, 2005, who providing additional information and photos. Thanks are due Abie Grossfeld for his suggestions and editing services. Introduction, commentary, and formatting by Dr. Larry Banner, Web Manager.