When Plainview JFK's Jessica Lopez came down with a stress fracture in her back last summer, she dealt with the pain, the physical therapy and the two-month break from gymnastics in the same way she'd dealt with everything else in her chosen sport.
With a smile.
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"She's always smiling," coach Debbie Rut said of her standout eighth-grader, who burst onto the scene last season after a top-three showing at the state qualifier. "The first time I saw her, she comes and she just goes, and she smiles and she's so nonchalant. She's not showy. She comes in and she does what she has to do."
Lopez's fracture is fully healed, and though Rut will take care not to overuse her during the season, the Level 9 gymnast returns as one of the premier competitors in Nassau this season. She was the only underclassman to make the Section 8 state team as an all-around, and came in third on beam with a 9.405 in the state tournament.
"It was really great because I was only in seventh grade and it was my first state meet," she said. "Gymnastics is a lot of work and it's just great to see how the hard work paid off."
Though a Level 9 with her club gym, MidIsland in Hicksville, Lopez, who's all but mastered a Yurchenko layout on vault and is working toward 21/2 punch front on floor, has the skills to move up to a 10, the highest possible level. "I decided to stay 9 this year because it's not just physical," she said. "Mentally, you really have to believe in yourself and have confidence because it's so hard without it. Plus I'm only in eighth grade, so with Level 10, we've got some time."
Confidence, she said, is something that she's been working on consistently since moving up to nine three years ago. It was bolstered last year when, in her first year on varsity, she helped lead Plainview to a near-perfect season and second-place spot in Conference I, behind Bethpage.
"You feel really good about yourself," she said. "Your confidence is like, 'Yes, I did it.' I told myself I could and I did."
Changes in conference alignments mean for stiffer competition. This year, gymnastics moves to three ability-based conferences rather than two, which means a higher level of competition for top teams, greater parity throughout the sport and, oh yeah, a chance to face your biggest rivals twice a season instead of once.
At the head of the pack in Conference I is reigning champion Bethpage, which returns three state qualifying gymnasts, headlined by senior captain Sarah Ciresi.
Ciresi, who coach Kim Rhatigan called a "role model gymnast," helps to ground a seriously talented team that includes a three-even state specialist in ninth-grader Alyssa Firth and sophomore Alexis Fraher. Challenging them, as always, is Plainview, which graduated a core of last year's crew, but remains a formidable force behind Lopez and Ashley Bellino. Keep an eye on Massapequa (Heidi Baldinger, Emily Caulfield, Tayla Quinn) and Sewanhaka District, which returns state gymnast Stephanie Jennings.
Oceanside shows promise in Conference II thanks to standout seventh-grader Lexi Kessler, while North Shore nips at the Sailors heels behind Annie Marchildon and Minnie Hou. Garden City, led by Andrea Laisure, looks to challenge Cold Spring Harbor in brand new Conference III.