Champion gymnast returns to first love as school director
Retired Burnsville Police Chief Eric Gieseke advanced methodically in his first career — from cadet to patrol officer to sergeant to captain to chief.
His second career snuck up on him, through a phone call from a number he didn’t recognize.
It was Julia Thompson, co-founder of TAGS Gymnastics, where Gieseke had coached three decades before to supplement his cadet’s income.
Congratulating him on his retirement as chief in April 2019, Thompson made a suggestion Gieseke couldn’t refuse. The suggestion became an offer after he met with Thompson’s children, Alex Pesavento and Tony Artez, who now own the school.
Last month the former state high school champion and Big 10 gymnast completed his first year as director of TAGS Gymnastics, which has locations in Apple Valley and Eden Prairie.
“This is my new life,” said Gieseke, whose 30-year Burnsville Police Department career included six as chief. “I detached, and it feels good.”
Gieseke, 55, doesn’t coach, but he goes to work in comfy gym clothes. Before temporarily closing because of COVID-19, TAGS had 3,500 students, mostly girls, and 100 part- and full-time teachers between the two locations. His experience as an administrator and mentor in a large organization is useful.
“It has been just over one year and we are so fortunate to have Eric in the director role at TAGS,” Pesavento wrote in an email. “Our employees say that it feels like he’s been here forever! He is a respected leader and has a gift for connecting with the staff to ensure everyone is aligned with the mission and values at TAGS.”
Growing up in Brooklyn Park, Gieseke got into the sport in junior high through an influential Champlin police officer, Craig “Andy” Anderson, who recruited the sometimes disruptive student into his Andy’s Tigers gymnastics program.
“It’s the best thing I ever did,” said Gieseke, who lives in Lakeville.
In his junior year at Anoka High School he won the state boys all-around championship, taking first in floor, horse and rings.
In his senior year he was warming up at the state tournament when he pulled a back muscle and had to withdraw.
“It was heartbreaking for a kid,” said Gieseke, who had hoped to become Minnesota’s first back-to-back all-around boys champion. “I cried in the locker room and everything. It was upsetting. But as I look back now, at 55, it was an excellent experience because it taught me you’ve got to work through injury, you’ve got to heal, you’ve got to train, you’ve got to get back in the gym.”
Despite the back injury he was still awarded a partial scholarship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he competed for four years, earning a full ride and selection as team captain in his senior year.
“That was a big thrill,” said Gieseke, who competed in four Big 10 championships. “Just to compete at the collegiate level and get through it without any injuries after having suffered one in high school was a big thrill. I still keep in contact with guys from the team today.”
He credits his gymnastics experience for the resiliency and self-discipline it took to grind his way to the top in law enforcement. But occasionally it had more immediate benefits, such as the time police responded to reports of an intoxicated man firing rifle rounds at his neighbor’s house.
Peering inside police saw he’d passed out with his gun beside him. Afraid of waking the man with a bold entrance, they sent Gieseke in through a window to unlock the front door.
“The joys of being small and compact,” he said.
After retiring, Gieseke was working in internal investigations for Wells Fargo when he got Julia Thompson’s call. Thompson and her husband, Greg Aretz, founded TAGS as the Thompson Academy of Gymnastics in Burnsville in 1977.
“My parents always had great memories of Eric and praised his high character and work ethic,” Pesavento wrote.
Not only did Gieseke coach for TAGS a generation ago, he brought his own two sons, now in college, to train at the Apple Valley location.
The school closed both locations when the pandemic struck in mid-March and began a phased reopening in June. Gieseke oversaw the school’s transition to new health and safety protocols and, according to Pesavento, remains upbeat about its future.
“We’re very fortunate that we have a good customer base and people are signing back up and they’re coming back to class,” Gieseke said. “I think that shows the product that we produced before is still good.”