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LI high school gymnasts adapting to a new season impacted by COVID-19

Payton Sack of Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK, center, and

Payton Sack of Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK, center, and Jaime Hirtzel of Bethpage chat with Nassau gymnastics coordinator and Bethpage head coach Kim Rhatigan during a joint team practice at Farmingdale Gymnastics Academy on Jan. 4. Credit: James Escher

Bethpage gymnastics coach and Section VIII coordinator Kim Rhatigan is full of energy and as optimistic as they come.

But COVID-19 can change everybody’s outlook.

With postponements and cancellations commonplace, she was expecting Section VIII executive director Pat Pizzarelli to cancel the season at the last minute.

"I was waiting for the shoe to drop," Rhatigan said.

Once Rhatigan arrived at Farmingdale Gymnastics Academy on Monday and gymnasts from Bethpage and reigning Nassau champion Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK trickled into the shared facility following temperature checks and other protocols, the reality of the season set in.

Excitement filled the air and so did the sight of gymnasts getting ready for the season.

"The team is excited," POB junior Payton Sack said. " ... It’s been hard with everything, but the season should be good."

Sharing a facility allows the gymnasts to learn each program’s strengths and start new friendships.

"We can always benefit from the way their coaches coach, the way the girls [at POB] do their gymnastics, look up to them and take things apart from how they do [gymnastics]," Bethpage junior gymnast Jamie Hirtzel said.

Though gymnastics is classified as a moderate risk sport due to its ability to social distance and sanitize equipment with regularity following every practice or meet, sharing a facility brings a higher COVID-19 risk.

"All it takes is one [COVID case]," POB head coach Debbie Rut said, "and that could be it for both teams."

POB already has some adversity this season. Rut, who has been the head coach since 2008, decided to sit out the year due to COVID-19 and sophomore captain Sabrina Ratas will miss the season with a left foot injury suffered in October.

Rut has enlisted the help of former Garden City head coach Eileen Mussler, who she has known for over 20 years, and current Ward Melville head coach Caryl Crasa.

"I’m very grateful," Mussler said. "I think the kids are really looking forward to it."

As for replacing Ratas, the team feels the returning depth that includes Sack and sophomore Alyssa Sanborn and the coaching expertise brought in will allow the team to maintain its standard of excellence.

Ratas also sees ways that COVID-19’s influence can help her squad.

"Now more than ever we really have to look out for each other’s health and safety and make sure that we are there for each other because [the conditions] are difficult both mentally and physically," Ratas said. "[The lack of a crowd] will just encourage us to be more motivational for each other."

With the first practice completed, POB begin its title defense with a short and unusual season that starts on Jan. 21 at 5:30 p.m. at Jamaica Avenue Elementary School in Plainview.

"Hopefully, the season will run itself and we’ll just take it one day at a time like in gymnastics we take it one event at a time," Mussler said.

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