Liam Summers loves gymnastics. So much so that the 14-year-old boy from Oakdale is a member of Connetquot High School’s girls gymnastics team.
As a kid, Summers said he tried to turn every piece of furniture in the family home into a trampoline or some other piece of gymnastics equipment. He wore out a path on the grass in his backyard from going back and forth, practicing tumbling.
High school gymnastics, along with the related sport of competitive cheerleading, was his dream, but boys gymnastics was dropped as a varsity sport on Long Island in 2003. So he chose a different path, and he never felt out of place.
“It’s not that I necessarily wanted to do girls gymnastics, but it was just the only thing open at the moment and it’s just convenient,” Summers said. “I love doing it.”
Although state rules allow boys to compete on girls teams when that sport is not offered to boys (and vice versa for girls), an athlete such as Summers must be cleared by both the county sports governing body — in this case Section XI — along with the school district, which determine whether he will have an unfair advantage because of his size or strength before he can join the team.
Keeling Pilaro, a boy who played on Southampton’s otherwise all-girls field hockey team in 2011-12, faced numerous challenges. An attempt was made to ban him after the 2011 season on the grounds that his “superior stick play” had an adverse effect on the girls’ ability to participate and succeed in the sport.
“He was approved the first year based on his physical size,” Suffolk executive director Donald Webster said of Pilaro. “When he went through the process, the questions became a little more difficult. He was getting bigger, he was getting better.”
Unlike Pilaro, Summers, a freshman, easily vaulted any roadblocks because, Webster said, in addition to his size (5-5, 122 pounds), he wouldn’t be replacing a girl on the team.
All that remained was Summers’ greatest challenge: acceptance.
When senior Kayla Liuzzi found out a boy was joining the team, she had a lot of questions about who he was and how he’d be able to pull it off.
“I honestly didn’t think he was going to be comfortable being on a team full of girls, but once I met him it was really easy to connect and talk about gymnastics,” Liuzzi said. Now the two are close friends.
“Everyone loved him and he kind of came in really smooth,” said teammate Elizabeth Young.
Connetquot coach Renee Guerrieri was supportive.
“He knows that he’s coming into an all-girls world and he has to really prove that he deserves to be there,” she said.
“He’s probably one of the most naturally talented kids I’ve ever seen,” she added. “He just has something special. He can tumble better than most of the girls I’ve seen training since they’ve started doing this when they were 5.”
Women’s gymnastics events are the vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise, while men’s gymnastics features high bar, pommel horse, rings, parallel bars, vault and floor exercise. Summers said his training focused on girls’ events He only spent one day practicing men’s routines.
“This is normal gymnastics to me,” Summers said. “If I had started training for boys, I would probably feel weird” about girls events, adding that he plans to work on men’s events after the season.
Guerrieri said that at first, other teams were surprised to see a boy take to the floor, but most people accepted him — there have been boys competing at the state level before — and the judges tell her about how much he’s improved in a season. A boy in girls gymnastics was less shocking to her than the skills he brought with him.
Unlike men’s gymnastics, women’s competition awards elegance. Many of the athletes enter the sport with dance training, a distinct advantage for Summers’ female teammates and opponents.
“He has to be more creative in the kind of moves he puts into his dance on floor,” Guerrieri said.
When Summers takes off on a flip, he does it with power and poise, contorting his body and usually sticking the landing. It’s a far cry from when his parents had to worry about him getting hurt vaulting off furniture.
“I don’t cringe anymore when he flips on concrete,” said his father, Scott Summers. “He has a natural ability to fly.”
Liam, who regularly scores 9.0 and above in vault and floor exercise, has proved to be a favorite with his teammates.
“He isn’t so cocky, but he’s humble. He’s always trying to help others,” Liuzzi said. “He isn’t just working on himself.”
Summers’ enthusiasm goes beyond the tumbling mat. In middle school, he invited a number of girls who hadn’t made the Oakdale-Bohemia cheerleading team to his house for three separate clinics. Some of those girls wound up making the next tryout, said Corinne Summers, Liam’s mom.
“That’s what he wants to do,” Scott said. “He talks about being a trainer and teaching.”
While gymnastics has gone well, Summers isn’t ruling out cheerleading in college. He’ll decide when the time comes, but for now, he’s paving a new path in Suffolk — this time with a mat to soften the landing.