The Greater Spokane League is the only league in Eastern Washington to offer gymnastics as a varsity sport, allowing more athletes the opportunity to participate in a team atmosphere.
At second-year Ridgeline High School, first-year coach Leah Grisafi emphasizes participation for gymnasts of all levels while trying to help athletes with aspirations compete at a higher level.
Grisafi, an English teacher at the school, was an assistant coach last year in Ridgeline’s inaugural season. She takes over as the head coach this season with a pair of gymnasts who reached state last season – but with a host of others in the no-cut program looking for an experience, friendship or fitness.
“Last year, we only had 23 girls and this year, we have 32 – actually one just joined today, so 33 girls,” Grisafi said. “Something’s working.”
It’s a balancing act serving the different goals of the athletes.
“I’m trying to build camaraderie,” Grisafi said. “We didn’t have enough time last year to do team bonding. It was the first thing I talked to them about – ‘Look forward to this, look forward to that.’ So, it’s not just hard work and then they compete. We want to work hard but have a lot of fun doing it.
“They are making friendships. And they’re meeting outside of the gym and I see them in the halls together whereas I don’t know that they would have been together had they not joined gymnastics.”
The Falcons had two sophomore athletes reach state last year: Isabella De la Rosa in each of the four events and Annabelle Frazier in the floor exercise.
“We didn’t know both would make it,” Grisafi said. “You don’t know until it happens. Then within less than a week we were on the road and went to state. It was super exciting.”
“It was really cool,” Frazier said of state. “It was a really fun time with my teammate, Bella, and our coaches.”
She was proud to represent the new school as state.
“There was only two of us, but any representation of Ridgeline over at state is amazing.”
Frazier has been involved in gymnastics since third grade and appreciates the aspects that high school gymnastics bring to the sport.
“Club is very strict,” she said. “High school just brings more fun to it and lets people who have never tried it do it and not have pressure.
“I like how encouraging everyone is and it’s just like another family.”
De La Rosa have been a gymnast since she was 7. Last year was her first in high school gymnastics and she was impressed with the gymnastics room in the new school.
“I know a lot of schools don’t even have facilities and they have to go to a different place to practice,” she said. “It’s really great that we have something at the school so we don’t have to go somewhere.”
De La Rosa wishes even more students would come out for gymnastics.
“A lot of people think they can’t do it,” she said. “They’ll think, ‘I really want to join and it seems super fun, but I can only do a cartwheel.’ That doesn’t matter. You can still join. There are so many people in here that are going to support you.
“You just don’t know until you try it. I think people need to try and not be scared that they can’t do it.”
The team added club gymnast Julianne Stevenson, a sophomore transfer who did not participate in high school gymnastics at Kentwood High School in Covington, Washington, last year.
Stevenson was quick to answer if she was enjoying her sport in high school.
“I love it,” she said. “I like how you can just do what you need to do to get better rather than a strict program.
“And the girls, they are amazing.”
She competes in all the events but especially likes the balance beam.
“I just have always found it to be very peaceful,” she said. “All the other events are nerve-wracking. But that event I can just calm down and focus.”
Stevenson has found a renewed love for her sport moving from club to school.
“In the past, the stress has been very, ‘I have to hit this,’ or ‘I have to get this in order to be good.’ But this year I’m just having fun doing it.”
Grisafi said that’s a theme among her athletes.
“A lot of the girls that are leading my warmups have been in gymnastics since they were little,” Grisafi said. “And I’ve noticed with this sport, compared to other sports, it’s not like ‘Oh, well, you’re better than me.’ They’re more like, ‘Oh, that looked really good. Have you tried doing this?’
“And I’ve never seen that in a sport. It’s usually, ‘Me. I’m the only one and I’m the most important and I’m the best.’ And here it’s not like that at all. They help each other and they’re kind. That’s just the bottom line.”
On the other hand, Grisafi has just as many in her program looking to benefit from the experience of participating in a team sport.
Ridgeline has three foreign exchange students on the team: Sophia Mazzoletti and Ludovica “Lu” Paternostro are from Italy while Catarina Alonso Munoz hails from Spain. All are new to the sport and team sports in general.
“One thing they all share is their tenacity to fundamentals of gymnastics,” Grisafi said. “Every day, they push themselves to learn new skills and are always eager to try something new.”
“In Italy, we don’t have school sports. We only do sports in clubs,” Mazzoletti said.
She and Paternostro also played slowpitch softball in the fall.
“Softball is not a sport famous in Italy,” she said. “It was so exciting to do it.”
“It’s my first year in gymnastics,” Mazzoletti said. “I wanted to do some sports to meet new people. I’ve never done gymnastics, so I was like, ‘Why not?’
“I’m not that good, but I am trying to do it since it’s my first time doing it for real. But I almost see some differences from before when I started.”
Paternostro found her fall afternoons “boring” because most of the friends she met had jobs.
“I just went home and had nothing to do,” she said.
She started with gymnastics but found “it wasn’t really my thing.” Still, she remains with the team as a manager, helping with equipment and music.
“I like doing stuff to help out and I still get to be in the gym, watching all the routines. So, it’s still fun. I’m going to take pictures to post them on social media. I’m like the coach’s assistant.”
Paternostro appreciates the social aspect of sports.
“Most of my friends here I meet them through sports,” she said. “In fact, it was more of a social thing joining softball and gymnastics, more than a sport, to meet friends.”
Munoz enjoyed played soccer in the fall, but gymnastics was something she was especially interested in trying.
“When I was little, I did rhythmic gymnastics, which is similar but not the same.”
So far, the beam is her favorite event.
“It’s really fun for me to do and I think it’s the easiest,” she said.
Munoz is making lots of new friends.
“I have so many classes, but I also wanted another group of friends. They’re all really, really sweet.
“I really like school spirit. Like, going to football games, having sports inside the school. We don’t have all that stuff, so it’s really fun to be here.”