High school is a time for kids to dream, and Candis Kowalik is no stranger to dreaming.
After she won the individual state gymnastics title last year as a Warwick Vets freshman, Kowalik began to dream big. She mentioned the Olympics to me in an interview after that meet, and she imagined coming back this year and breaking the state record for all-around score.
She wanted to win the title again, which would make her the only Rhode Island gymnast on record to win the individual state championship in both her freshman and sophomore years.
Her dreaming came through all season long. She led Vets to its best season in years, and cemented her place as the state’s best gymnast. Her average all-around score was 37.450, which is just .350 away from the state meet record of 37.800.
And that was just her average.
But on Feb. 17, the dreams stopped. During her dismount from the balance beam in Vets’ final meet of the year – a make-up meet, no less – Kowalik came down awkwardly on the side of the mat and fractured her right ankle.
Just like that, her high school season was over. There would be no repeat championship, no state record. Instead, Kowalik got a cast and crutches.
The dreams turned to nightmares. In Florida, on school break immediately following the injury, it was the only thing on her mind.
“All week when I was in Florida, it really, really bothered me,” she said. “I was upset every night. I knew there was nothing I could do about it.”
The thing is, gymnastics isn’t just a hobby for Kowalik. It’s a way of life. She’s been involved in the sport since she could manage to stand on a balance beam, and she’s never had a serious injury. Sure, she’s been sick and had minor injuries, but nothing had ever kept her from the gym for any significant length of time.
For as long as she can remember, Kowalik has had gymnastics. One faulty landing took that away.
“Gymnastics is like the only thing I’ve known since I was like three,” Kowalik said. “I’m in the gym all week. I even started working at my gym (Warwick Dance and Gymnastics) this year.”
Kowalik felt like a heavyweight champion who had to simply hand over the title belt without losing a bout.
Then a funny thing happened – she started to move on.
For all the dreams that faded when her ankle broke, she found some perspective, and she found it in the group that had been her biggest supporter both before the injury and afterwards.
“I finally accepted the fact when I came home on Friday and I was with my team,” Kowalik said. “My team made me feel better. I was trapped in a funk, and was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ When I was with them, I felt better.”
She realized that there was still a light at the end of the tunnel.
The diagnosis on her ankle wasn’t terrible, as she only has about two more weeks in her cast before moving on to a walking boot for the remainder of her recovery.
At that point she can start conditioning and doing some exercises on the bars. Kowalik also competes outside of high school in USAG events, and will likely miss the USAG states at the end of March, but she’s planning on petitioning so she can still go to regionals.
If that works, and she performs like she can, she’ll end up at nationals. She’s also just a sophomore in high school, which means she’ll have two more cracks at getting back to the top of the podium at the high school level.
It’s not all bad.
“Now, I have to take in the fact that I have next year, the year after that, and this isn’t going to affect me,” Kowalik said. “There are injuries out there that keep people out of gymnastics for so long. I got lucky with this one that I’m out a short period of time. I’ll be back.”
At Monday’s state meet, Kowalik was as active as anybody, crutching around the gym to talk to high school teammates and USAG teammates, coaches and parents. Everyone wanted to know how she was doing. It was therapeutic, in a way.
“Watching everyone, being able to talk and take a deep breath and kind of let go has helped,” Kowalik said. “It feels good to be here because it’s with a lot of my fellow competitors.”
After the meet – which was won by Barrington’s Nicole Silva with a score of 36.550, nearly a full point below Kowalik’s qualifying average – gymnasts competed in hand stand competitions, and Kowalik wasn’t about to miss out on everything.
Before anyone really knew it, Kowalik was out there, standing on her hands with her casted leg dangling to the side.
“Watch this,” Vets head coach Capone-Melino said to me. “She’s going to win this. She told me, ‘I’m going to win something today.’”
She ended up finishing in third, but that wasn’t the most important takeaway from watching her compete and laugh with her fellow competitors. It was something bigger.
Kowalik is ready to dream again.
Kevin Pomeroy is the assistant sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.