Warwick Vets freshman Candis Kowalik was understandably nervous as the Rhode Island High School state meet began on Sunday at Rhode Island College
One event into it, though, the nerves had subsided and Kowalik did what she had been doing all season long – being the best gymnast in the building.
The top-ranked gymnast in the state heading in, Kowalik started off with a strong performance on the bars and kept it up the rest of the way. She put up her best all-around score of the year, and when it was all said and done, Kowalik had taken her place in Rhode Island history as the 2012 individual state champion.
“It’s really nice to win,” Kowalik said. “I was kind of nervous coming in. I did my best today, and that was good enough. It feels really good to come in as a freshman and take first place.”
Kowalik took gold medals in the floor and the beam, while capturing bronze in both the bars and the vault. Her all-around score of 37.725 was just enough to edge La Salle senior Savannah Soares, who finished with a 37.650 and North Kingstown senior Alysse Pazienza, who had a 37.300.
Pazienza had won the last two state titles and was ranked second behind Kowalik coming in, while Barrington’s Nicole Silva was ranked third and Soares was ranked fourth.
But Kowalik outlasted all of them, becoming the first Warwick public school gymnast to win the crown since Toll Gate’s Cindy Tallmadge won three consecutive titles from 1978-80.
Kowalik’s all-around score was the second highest in state history, trailing only the 37.800 from La Salle’s Meghan Fogarty in 2009.
“Candis, we knew she had a lot of competition today,” Vets head coach Angela Cidade said. “For her to come with her highest all-around as well, and first in the state, it’s just great.”
With Kowalik’s score setting the pace, Vets enjoyed some team success on Sunday as well. In the program’s first ever trip to states, the ’Canes finished in second in the Division II meet, as its combined score of 126.425 was just behind eventual-champion West Warwick’s 128.050. La Salle captured the Division I title with a 141.550.
Besides Kowalik, Vets had two other gymnasts competing all-around – senior Kristen Hyle and junior Thalia Rivera-Ortiz – as well as a number of others competing in specific events.
Rivera-Ortiz was the ’Canes’ second-highest finisher, as she came in 24th place with a score of 26.250. She finished in 38th on floor, 33rd on vault and 30th on bars.
Nearly everybody on the team had her best performance of the year.
“We’re thrilled today,” Cidade said. “These girls have never been to a state competition. It was their first time to qualify for states. To come in second in the division and second at states is huge for us.”
But it was Kowalik who stole the show.
After opening with bars, in which she scored a 9.050, Kowalik moved on to beam.
In an event that isn’t typically her best, Kowalik put up the highest score in any event for any gymnast on the day. She finished with a 9.700.
“It’s usually vault that’s my best event,” Kowalik said. “Today it was beam, and that made it really exciting to get a 9.7.”
From there, she went to floor, where her score of 9.575 was just enough to give her a first-place finish in that event. Pazienza was close behind with a 9.550.
Then came the final event, the vault, and Cidade and Kowalik knew that the freshman would need a strong performance to have a shot at the title.
They adjusted accordingly.
“We actually changed her vault after we saw how good she was doing,” Cidade said. “We stepped it up a notch to give her a 10.0 start value.”
Sure enough, Kowalik delivered.
She scored a 9.400, which put her in third place for the event. More importantly, though, she had kept close enough to Soares – who won the event with a 9.650 – to be in contention for the championship.
When the awards ceremony came, the winners were announced for each individual event. Kowalik added the scores up in her head as they were announced, and realized that when they announced the all-around champion, they were probably going to call her name.
“I had kind of figured it out,” Kowalik said. “I knew I had first or second. When they called my name, I was really excited.”
She took her place at the top of the podium as the youngest of the six place-winners.
“She was ranked first out of all the kids, so we knew that she would be near the top,” Cidade said. “But she also hadn’t competed against some of the girls that were going to be her strong competition here. We knew she would hopefully place top six, but we didn’t really know where. To see her in first is really exciting.”
Kowalik will now compete in the New England meet, which is scheduled for Saturday, March 10 at Jonathan Law High School in Milford, Conn.
Then, of course, there will be three more years of trying to maintain her place as the top gymnast in Rhode Island.
“I’ll just keep working at the gym and see where it takes me,” Kowalik said.
Sunday’s meet also marked the end of the line for Vets seniors Hyle and Hannah Messier.
It was a great way to finish the season, especially after the team had won just two meets over the past three seasons prior to winning eight this year.
“They were really excited,” Cidade said. “They were thrilled to be here.”
Toll Gate’s Molly Fox also competed in the meet, as she qualified as an individual. She finished in 36th overall with a score of 15.200, and she took 25th in the bars and 36th in the floor.