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School gymnastics

Gymnasts bending over backward to comply with new safety protocols, on and off the mat

For Masconomet's Gracy Mowers and other gymnasts, most of their adjustments this winter will be made outside of competition.
For Masconomet's Gracy Mowers and other gymnasts, most of their adjustments this winter will be made outside of competition.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Before practices began, Masconomet Regional gymnastics coach Alicia Gomes gathered her three senior captains. She realized there’s going to be something missing this year: the team’s high-five line.

“ ‘These are going to be the holes,’ ” Gomes told her captains. “ ‘We have such fun, positive energy on our team, so what are we going to do?’ ”

The captains, Sarah Aylwin, Gracy Mowers, and Charlotte Losee came up with a solution. Instead of normal celebrations, the back-to-back Massachusetts champions will encourage each other by hitting the floor twice, clapping, and then shouting the gymnast’s name who completed their routine. Teamwork fit for the time.

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The MIAA’s COVID-19 safety modifications prohibit high-fives and hugs, two gymnastics staples. The prospect of fans at meets depends on the size of the facility, but most teams will compete without spectators. Boys and girls can compete on the beam, mat, vault, and bars without masks, which are otherwise mandatory. Teams can only participate in dual meets or can compete remotely, performing in front of the same judges in separate gyms during a fixed time span.

Sharon athletic director Nick Schlierf said his team’s first opponent, Attleboro, has chosen to compete in a remote setting because of the layout of its facility.

While modifications to the sport are relatively manageable compared with other winter sports such as basketball, coaches worry about team morale.

“We know it’s going to be challenging and not as fun as usual, but we’re just going to do everything we can,” said Mowers, a three-time Globe Athlete of the Year.

Masconomet won the girls' All-State title last season, but they won't be celebrating any victories with close huddles like this one.
Masconomet won the girls' All-State title last season, but they won't be celebrating any victories with close huddles like this one.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Gymnastics is a fall sport in Western Massachusetts, where many lessons were learned. The season was cut short by three weeks because of a COVID-19 outbreak. But even during competition, it wasn’t the same.

Westfield coach Joanne Hewins sensed her team’s morale occasionally “bottom out.” Socially distant bus rides weren’t as raucous, the teams had to compete in empty gyms while parents streamed meets online, and, of course, there was no embracing after successful routines.

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“I could just feel it,” said Hewins. “It seemed like some days they just didn’t want to be there.”

The risks are clear. To start Beverly’s first practice of the season, coach Julie Sciamanna reminded her 17 athletes about them — after they completed a symptom and contact-tracing Google form. Sciamanna then split her team into two cohorts, a COVID-19-related wrinkle in her practice design. They wipe down the equipment between drills.

Sciamanna emphasizes the importance of the team culture. This may be one of the few communal experiences her kids have had since last season ended in February. A challenge is keeping her gymnasts mentally engaged while safety protocols suck some fun out of the sport.

“At the end of every practice, we’d always put our hands in and do some sort of cheer,” said Sciamanna. “So we have been doing that, but our hands are in and we’re very far apart in a giant circle . . . We’re still trying to keep some of those traditions alive.”

Another wrench in keeping Sciamanna’s team together is the statewide cancellation of junior varsity teams to assist in social distancing protocols and help make meets run more efficiently. Sciamanna tries to get each athlete at least one regular-season meet per season. Now there’s even less opportunity for inexperienced gymnasts.

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At Masconomet, Gomes had to make roster cuts for the first time. With facility size limits, she can’t bring her entire 21-person team to meets and ensure social distancing. She’s thought of potentially platooning her team — letting one compete in half the events, then exit the gym for the second half with a 15-minute sanitizing break — but nothing is final.

Whatever logistics Masconomet chooses, it won’t get a chance to compete for the state title despite being what Gomes calls the most talented group she has had. The MIAA eliminated all winter state tournaments, including gymnastics, removing the psychological finish line.

“We’re trying to think out of the box so we can make this a great season, even if we don’t have states,” said Gomes.