It’s 10:55am, the Thursday of Spring Break. Hailey DiCicco is getting ready for gymnastics practice scheduled for 11:30AM when her coach sends out an urgent message: “Let’s meet at 11:00 team. Get there when you can.”
COVID-19 was becoming a more prominent part of our lives, but DiCicco hadn’t yet processed what was going on. “I was too flustered,” she explains. “I grabbed my stuff for practice and walked over to the gym. When I walked through the doors into FLB I felt my stomach drop.”
DiCicco has been an essential part of the Ursinus College Gymnastics team since 2017. She was a top recruit with considerable expectations coming into freshman year. “I had a lot of big goals for myself and I had a lot of expectations,” she proclaims. “College [gymnastics] had always been the end goal for me, it was my biggest motivation for getting out of high school and the club gymnastics space.”
However, DiCicco had no clue what her freshman year actually had in store for her. “It was a rough start for me to begin with because I really overestimated how easy it would be for me to adjust to new equipment and new coaches,” said a disappointed DiCicco. She remembers every detail of what would come next.
“Two days before Halloween, on a Friday practice, I was doing flight series on the beam and was finally feeling confident in it. I did a few too many and was more tired than I realized but I decided to try one more before I called it a day,” explains DiCicco. “That was my last flight series, or any gymnastics skill, for the next four months. I crashed pretty bad on my wrist… This [season ending] injury threw a wrench in every part of my freshman year.”
Fast forward to sophomore year, and DiCicco was ready for redemption. Still, DiCicco’s season fell short of her expectations. “I was not able to find my groove and compete in a way that would make myself and my team proud. I always struggled with having confidence in my gymnastics…I failed more times than I succeeded and was never able to walk away from a meet feeling like I did what I could,” she recalls. However, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Come junior year DiCicco was able to finally be proud of her hard work.
DiCicco attributes a lot of her success this year to head coach Kim Valenti. During an incredibly discouraging practice, Valenti pulled DiCicco aside to discuss what was going through her mind. “I did not believe I could be good,” DiCicco explains. “As soon as it mattered and people needed me to do well, I crumbled.” With tears in her eyes, DiCicco says that this talk with her coach helped her change her mentality. “Our next meet I hit my events in a way that made myself proud.”
“I am really getting emotional as I answer these questions,” says DiCicco, with tears starting in her eyes. “There are really no words I can find to describe the feeling of that weight of sixteen years of being disappointed being lifted off my shoulders.”
I asked DiCicco to elaborate on her favorite meet from this season. Her eyes lit up, and without hesitation she dove into detail. “My favorite meet without a doubt was our Springfield meet.” The team was coming off a season high the week prior to this meet. “We knew this momentum was going to carry us even higher at this meet, and our collective excitement was very evident…we were there to hit. The meet was electric to be quite honest. I just remember having a smile stuck on my face for every second of that meet. The moment of the meet that will be cemented in my mind forever is my bar routine, specifically the dismount. My feet hit that mat and they did not move, and I realized I just stuck my routine. In the video of my routine I’m pretty sure you can see the shock on my face and then the huge grin as I salute and proceed to jump up and down with joy. [At the end of the meet,] I turned to our manager, and one of my closest friends, Sam Aguirre, and I just started crying.” Crying tears of joy, that is. The team garnered their highest score of the season that day.
There was a fire lit under DiCicco as the team trained over Spring Break for the biggest competition of their season; NCGA East Regionals. This meet would determine who the top three teams in the conference would be, and essentially who would qualify to Nationals, a meet the Bears had missed out on since DiCicco’s time at Ursinus.
With the Coronavirus pandemic already affecting major sporting events such as NBA games and possibly the Summer Olympics, DiCicco had a gut feeling that the message from their head coach calling for an urgent team meeting could not be good news.
Upon walking into the FLB, DiCicco vividly remembers, “I walked past the entire Women’s Lacrosse Team [who were all] crying.” DiCicco silently continued past them into the gym. “I just sat down on the floor next to everyone and felt absolutely nothing. As soon as I saw [Coach] Valenti walk in with her head down, I knew we were done. She sat down in the circle, and as soon as she tried to open her mouth and explain the situation she started crying. When that happened I felt tears running down my face.”
After what felt like hours of Coach Valenti gathering her thoughts and emotions, she told the team with sorrow in her voice that their season would abruptly come to an end due to the virus. The continuation of training and traveling was just not going to be the safest decision for anyone.
“A heartbreaking piece is not getting those final moments and closure with this team, because we will never have this same team again,” DiCicco notes. “The fact that since I have been on the team we haven’t made Nationals, and this year we truly had that potential made it just a bit more disappointing…we had gained so much momentum this season and we were headed towards something really special.”
However, DiCicco has never been someone to dwell on the past. She is already shifting her mindset to next season and how the team can use this frustration and lack of closure to succeed next year. “I am so lucky I get to come back next year…I already feel so motivated for next season. There is so much that we all wanted to do with the rest of our season, and I want to get back out there so badly.”
For DiCicco specifically, she knows she has some unfinished business to take care of. “I know that this summer [during training] I will have a few specific goals in mind and there are a couple of things left that I really want to compete before I am done for good…My class has never made Nationals, in fact the senior class this year were freshmen the last time UCG made Nationals. I think we all know what we plan to work towards and getting done next season, I’ll just leave it at that.”
DiCicco will be a key player to watch next year in Ursinus College Gymnastics’ redemption year. Nothing motivates a team more than having unfinished business to take care of.