Nicole Riccardi took a long look at some tables set up inside Infiniti Elite Gymnastics in Syosset.
An Ohio State banner covered one of the tables, while another Buckeyes banner hung on the wall in the background. The front of the gym — where the East Northport resident has trained as a gymnast for the past 3 ½ years — was about to be overrun with family members, friends, current and former teammates, as well as young gymnasts who train at the gym, celebrating Riccardi’s most recent accomplishment.
“All my hard work,” Riccardi said, “and all the hours I’ve put in through the years has finally paid off.”
While hard work has paid off for nearly 200 Long Island high school athletes who signed a National Letter of Intent last Wednesday, two in particular have taken an interesting path to reach their collegiate destination.
Riccardi, a Northport senior, will attend Ohio State. Kings Park’s Katie Finnegan, a junior, is headed to the University of Georgia. Both earned full athletic scholarships in gymnastics, and both will attend college in 2020. That’s right, both. (More on that later.)
Neither competed at the high school level. Instead both competed nationally and both were top 10 finishers at the Junior Olympic Nationals in May.
“This has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember,” said Riccardi, who has a 94 average and is a member of the school’s National Honor Society. “I wanted to be a part of a great athletic program and attend a great academic school.
“[Ohio State] is a Big Ten school, and this is huge for me. I’m so excited for the best four years of my life.”
The Buckeyes are getting an amazing gymnast, according to Tammy Marshall, who has coached Riccardi since she was 4.
“She’s the most decorated high school (age) gymnast on Long Island,” said Marshall, a gymnastics coach for more than 25 years, and a former Hicksville and UMass gymnast. “She’s also one of the most decorated gymnasts in the Northeast Region.”
Riccardi made a prediction to her mom before the Nastia Liukin Cup qualifier in early 2017. The Liukin Cup is an annual competition for the top gymnasts in the country, named after the former Olympian.
“She told me, ‘I’m going to win this meet so I can qualify for the Liukin Cup,’ ” recalled Riccardi’s mom, Debora.
It didn’t look good for the Riccardis when Nicole fell in her first event — the uneven bars. But after the final three events, Riccardi ended up as the top finisher in the junior age group.
That put her squarely on the radar of the top collegiate women’s gymnastics programs across the country. Riccardi became the first Region 6 gymnast to ever compete in the prestigious Liukin Cup and placed 10th in March, 2017. (Region 6 includes gymnasts from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine.)
More recently, she finished fourth in the all-around (37.925) in the 2019 Junior Olympic Nationals in May and earned a spot on the Junior Olympic national team.
“All of my blood, sweat and tears was worth it,” said the 17-year-old Riccardi, who hopes to study law and become a lawyer. “I never gave up.”
Katie Finnegan knows something about perseverance, as well as focusing on a goal.
“I have been dreaming about competing in college since I was 8,” Finnegan said. “I have been waiting for this moment for years.”
The Kings Park resident has overcome numerous obstacles to earn a full ride to Georgia, including three years of home-schooling during middle school (from grades sixth through eighth) when she traveled the country competing in national meets.
“I have gone back and forth sometimes, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ I have sacrificed so much. I struggled with injuries when I was younger,” said Finnegan, who tore her right hamstring in 2015. “It’s a very tough sport, mentally. Sometimes I asked myself, ‘Is this the sport for me?' "
Finnegan credits coach Robert Wing and the move she made in March 2017, to Apex Athletics in St. James.
“Honestly if I didn’t switch to Apex, I would have quit a long time ago,” said Finnegan, who wants to work as a physical therapist after college. “I was really in a bad place. I wasn’t there mentally or physically ... I know the sport. I am obsessed with it — I studied it — and I know what I need to do.”
What the junior needs to do in school this year is mind-boggling. The 16-year-old was called by the University of Georgia coaching staff in August, according to Finnegan’s mom, Kim, and was asked if Katie could combine her final two years of high school into one.
So, on top of a full junior year schedule, Finnegan — who has a 3.6 grade-point average — is taking four senior classes online: English, social studies, psychology and economics. Finnegan is on pace to matriculate to the Athens, Georgia, campus in time for the 2020-21 season.
“It’s very stressful finding time to get everything done,” said Finnegan, who trains about 22 hours a week. “I have to fit my whole schedule — schoolwork, gym time, physical therapy, rest — so I have to manage my time wisely.”
With all the sacrifices, one wonders: would Finnegan do it all again?
“Absolutely,” said Finnegan, who placed sixth overall (38.125) this year at the Junior Olympic Nationals. “It turned me into the person I am today. I have learned some amazing lessons. People do not know what gymnasts really have to do. It is without question tough, but the payoff is really, really good. I would do it 100 more times if I had to. I have no complaints.”