Greatest Athlete #19: Gymnastics all in the family for Judge

The memory of exactly how the news trickled down to JoAnna Judge has since faded away. As most information spreads these days, it probably came from Facebook; soon after confirmed by a former teammate.

ROBERT O'ROURK FILE PHOTO | Mount Sinai graduate JoAnna Judge competes on the uneven bars at the 1998 county championship in gymnastics.

In the winter of 2008, five years removed from a gymnastics career at the University of Rhode Island that saw Judge tumble, twist and flip her 5-foot-1 frame to some of the top beam and floor routines in school history, the former Mount Sinai High School star learned the fateful news. The axe that had felled UMass, James Madison, Towson and West Chester, among others, had swiftly and without notice come down on her alma mater. After 32 years, gymnastics as a Division I team at Rhode Island was to cease following the 2008 season, sacrificed to make way for a women’s lacrosse program that would yield an additional seven roster spots and better align the school with its conference, the Atlantic 10.

“It feels like someone took the rug out from under you,” Judge said.

For the program’s final home meet in early March, alumnae from various years convened at Rhode Island to say goodbye as the final Rams team defeated three schools on Senior Night. “We kind of just showed up,” Judge said. “It was sad.” Three weeks later Rhode Island finished second at the Eastern College Athletic Conference Championship, officially closing the curtain on three decades of history.

For a woman whose life was so closely entwined in the sport she loved, to lose her former team was to lose a piece of herself.

It’s a feeling she strives to never experience again.

JoAnna Judge is the first to admit she by no means had a “typical” childhood. As a toddler — and all the way through high school — she spent nearly every day in a gym, often staying as late as 10 p.m. If her friends wanted to hang out, they knew better than to knock on the door at her home. Best to head right to the gym.

For eight years her mother, Barbara Judge, owned Gymstix, a gymnastics gym in Coram that would become more of a home than the family’s house in Mount Sinai. JoAnna would gaze at the older girls, especially her sister Amanda, carefully trying to mimic their every move. Seven years older than JoAnna, Amanda competed in gymnastics through high school. One time when JoAnna was 7, Amanda helped spring her younger sister on a trampoline, launching her so high she crashed her head into the ceiling. But, indestructible little girl that she was, it hardly fazed her.

Even their brother, Brenden, often spent many days in the gym. The joke was that when it came time for lunch, he would climb an apparatus to the highest point he could, then begin eating.

Any birthday party was always at the gym. It eventually became hard to break the cycle. “You’re 15 and you’re like, ‘Oh I guess I can’t do that anymore,’ ” JoAnna recalled, laughing at the memory.

She briefly attempted other sports, but couldn’t hit a softball and, at 4-foot-7, didn’t make the seventh-grade basketball team, squashing that career before it began.

For as much as her life centered around gymnastics as a child, JoAnna, now 29, wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“It’s nothing but the happiest of memories,” she said. “Not to sound ridiculous, but it’s like magical.”

As JoAnna grew older and climbed the ladder in USA Gymnastics — reaching the coveted Level 10 by her sophomore year ­— she always remained that little girl at heart. The competitions became more intense, the pressure greater, the spotlight more glaring, but the sport never became overwhelming.

It wasn’t until the summer going into her senior year that it really sank in that gymnastics was something she excelled at. A broken ankle that summer ­­— the first injury of her career — provided her first dose of mortality. Hobbling around on one leg, she suddenly realized just how naturally the sport came to her all those years.

The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time ­— right before the start of her senior season, with the clock beginning to count down on receiving college offers. For a moment she thought her career might never advance beyond high school.

The balance beam in gymnastics is barely four inches wide; 3.94 to be exact. It stands on posts four feet off the ground and stretches across 16 feet. For a layman, walking from one end to the other without falling would be an accomplishment in itself.

JoAnna Judge

Imagine completing a 90-second routine of cartwheels, handstands, jumps and other acrobatics, culminating in a twisting, spinning dismount where a gymnast propels off the beam and lands squarely on two feet. Or least that’s the plan.

Those in the sport often point to the beam as the hardest event for young girls.

It came easiest to JoAnna.

“She could go out there and do 15 beam routines and stick every one,” Barbara said.

Her mom would know. She coached JoAnna throughout her career, including all six years on the Mount Sinai varsity. (She became head coach in JoAnna’s sophomore season.) Beam was always the one event they worked on together most. For outsiders it may have looked like her mom pushed JoAnna toward the event, which was never the case, she said.

“People seemed to not get that I actually enjoyed having her coach me,” JoAnna said.

The beam was the first event she competed in at the New York State Championship in 1994. As an eighth-grader, already a Level 9 Regional Qualifier ­— competition separate from the high school season ­— she finished in fifth place on the beam to begin a five-year stretch of earning All-State honors. By her freshman season she was competing in the all-around competition ­— which includes the beam, floor exercise, uneven bars and vault — at the state championship. As a sophomore she finished fifth overall.

Having her mom as coach created a unique relationship between mother and daughter. Gymnastics had long been a part of Barbara’s life, dating back to her days at Hicksville High School at a time when gymnastics was just being introduced at the scholastic level. She started coaching at Holy Family Diocesan High School, which later became St. Anthony’s in Huntington. Her husband, Thomas — a former football player at Yankton College in South Dakota — worked as head of the Comsewogue Youth Club and Barbara helped start a gymnastics program there. She later opener her own gymnastics gym and “then it just kind of mushroomed,” she said.

As much as gymnastics ran through her blood, Barbara didn’t want to force the sport on JoAnna.

“I always told her if you’re not enjoying it, then don’t do it,” said Barbara, who still coaches at Mount Sinai. “She just always enjoyed it so much. I think she was happier being upside down.”

JoAnna’s siblings would always say she and their mom were the same person. They even share the same birthday — Oct. 2.

“We just have a really good relationship,” JoAnna said. “It’s probably pretty nauseating to some people. We were always laughing. When other people got very intense, when other gyms were pushing their gymnasts and adding extra meets in the summer when you’re supposed to be healing, I had her really making sure that I was taking care of my body.”

The story line was so tempting, it practically begged to be written. For any reporter covering a gymnastics meet in the early to mid ’90s, the story often became JoAnna Judge and Dina Sulyma, a talented gymnast from Ward Melville who was a year younger.

ROBERT O'ROURK FILE PHOTO | JoAnna Judge and Dina Sulyma (left) of Ward Melville often found themselves going head-to-head in every event throughout high school.

Here were these two girls from neighboring schools going head-to-head, meet after meet. From one event to the next, the two almost always finished one-two. It spurred into an intense rivalry, though only in the minds of people watching.

“We were two of the most innocent, shy little powerhouse athletes,” JoAnna said. “I appreciated having her around. She pushed me.”

“It brought on the competition part of the sport,” Barbara said. “They liked each other, they talked to each other all the time. It was a nice relationship that they had.”

Competing against each other always brought out their best, even if it wasn’t the fierce rivalry people wanted to make it out to be.

At the county championship in her sophomore season, JoAnna won her first all-around title after finishing second her freshman season. She won the uneven bars, floor exercise and balance beam while taking second in the vault. Competing with a cast on her broken right wrist, Sulyma still qualified for the state championship in two events with a second-place finish on the beam and a tie for third on the floor.

By the next season both gymnasts were at the top of their game going into the county championship. Just a week before the main event, JoAnna and Sulyma squared off in the team championship between Mount Sinai and Ward Melville. JoAnna got the better of Sulyma individually (36.85 to 36.45), but the Patriots won the team title (169.70 to 162.20).

As expected at the individual championship, it came down to the final event to determine the all-around champion. JoAnna went first on the floor, posting an impressive score of 9.4 to take a comfortable lead and put the pressure squarely on Sulyma. Healthy for the first time in two years at a county championship, Sulyma ended the four-hour meet with the best score of the night, scoring a 9.65 to clinch the title.

The final score: Sulyma 36.750, JoAnna 36.725.

“I give her a lot of credit,” JoAnna said. “It’s almost like I can’t even sit here and compare myself because I just think she’s great. I just respect her, even as an adult now. They don’t make them like that anymore.”

At the state championship in Rochester the two gymnasts — now teammates on the Section XI team — went one-two again, with Sulyma edging JoAnna by the slimmest of margins. In the all-around competition Sulyma scored a 37.175 to become the first Suffolk gymnast to win the title. JoAnna finished 75-thousandths of a point shy of first.

The night was hardly a disappointment. JoAnna still won the bars and beam for her first individual state titles.

Afterward, As the club season swung into full gear, JoAnna began hitting her stride. She traveled to Seattle for the 1998 Junior Olympic Nationals, finishing in the top 30 in the all-around competition. She also began testing for elite level in USA Gymnastics, the highest echelon where Olympic-caliber gymnasts train.

The testing required two parts, including a compulsory portion where gymnasts all perform the same routines and are held to the most stringent standards. “You almost feel like you’re doing a ballet routine on beam,” JoAnna said. The second part is an optional routine, where the gymnasts must map out their own in-depth performances.

JoAnna passed the compulsory portion, but never advanced to the optional part. Shortly after completing the compulsories, just as her senior season approached, she broke her left ankle. And the wear and tear of years of competing slowly began withering away her shoulders.

Midway through her senior season in high school, JoAnna finally got back to competing after the injury. With her ankle heavily taped and her explosiveness weakened, she began the slow crawl to pre-injury form.

When Mount Sinai faced Ward Melville with the League I title on the line in early November 1998, JoAnna tweaked the ankle again on her first vault. She persevered to score an impressive 36.55, but it wasn’t enough to take down Sulyma, the winner with 37.55. “I tried not to let it discourage me,” JoAnna told a Newsday reporter after the meet. “I tried to think positive. But I was emotionally upset.”

The gymnasts faced off a few days later in the team championship. Ward Melville had the edge again, but JoAnna got the better of Sulyma. The difference came on beam where JoAnna scored a 9.65 compared to 8.65 for Sulyma.

At the individual championship, Sulyma won her second consecutive all-around title with a near flawless 38.225, one of the top marks in state history. Joanna settled for second with a 36.90.

Gymnastics is a winter sport for several sections in New York, so the state championship wasn’t for another three months.

Making her fifth appearance at a state championship on Feb. 27, 1999, JoAnna finally broke through by scoring a 37.075 to win the all-around state title. The good news didn’t stop there.

In May 1999 JoAnna traveled to Lincoln, Neb., for the Senior High School Nationals. With just two other teammates making up the New York team, the dynamic trio combined to win the tournament. JoAnna finished third in the all-around and her teammate, Ilene Cohen of Wantagh, won first place. Cohen went on to compete at Michigan State.

“That was a pretty outrageous meet,” JoAnna said. “I think Texas had 20 or something [gymnasts] and the three of us walked in, three little people, and won the whole thing.”

As her senior season unfolded early on, JoAnna still faced uncertainty over her college future. After her first recruiting trip to Rhode Island, the school didn’t offer a scholarship. She had hoped to stay close to home and didn’t want to go as far as the midwest, where some other schools had offers. Her dream centered on Rhode Island.

“I needed something that wasn’t completely going to make me feel like a fish out of water,” she said.

In a cruel twist of luck, shortly after her visit to Rhode Island, one of the team’s gymnasts tore her Achilles, opening an extra spot. In the 11th hour of her senior year, JoAnna officially became a Ram — full scholarship in tow.

Her college career featured an array of highlights. As a freshman she reached the NCAA Regionals on the beam, scoring a 9.650. She was the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week for Feb. 29-March 6 of 2000. At the conference championship she scored a 9.775 on the beam for seventh best.

By her sophomore season she tied for the second-highest beam score in school history with a 9.925 in a dual meet against Penn State, where Sulyma was a freshman. The same year she also scored the third highest floor exercise in school history with 9.900 in a tri-meet with Brown and Temple.

As her college career progressed, her shoulders continued to worsen. “My shoulder blade would kind of stick up,” JoAnna said. “It would stick out of the back of me. Everything was just kind of loose.” The injury never allowed her to compete on bars or vault. After college she underwent surgery to repair her shoulders.

“I never stopped even when it hurt,” she said. “Even though it sounds ridiculous now and I’m like crippled now, but you want to be tough and you want to keep going.”

Eight years have passed since the end of JoAnna Judge’s competitive gymnastics career. Her life, though, still revolves very much around the sport. She coaches the middle school team at Mount Sinai and is the assistant coach for the varsity, mother and daughter reunited. She lives in Mount Sinai and recently completed graduate work to teach special education after earning a degree in early childhood education with minors in human development and family studies from Rhode Island.

“If I wasn’t coaching I would have seriously mourned the loss of gymnastics,” JoAnna said. “It’s who I am. It’s who my family is.”

She never knew it at the time, but as the little peanut coming up through high school, she helped form the foundation for the Mount Sinai program. She set the path for countless other girls to follow. The bond between JoAnna and Mount Sinai gymnastics is unbreakable. There was nothing she could have done to save the Rhode Island program, so now she focuses on her high school team, lending a hand in whatever capacity she can. “It’s all I have left,” she said.

If at some point her mother decides to step down from coaching, JoAnna would love the opportunity to follow in her footsteps, if for no other reason than she wouldn’t want anyone else to do it.

“I would hate to walk away from it,” she said. “It’s almost like I helped to raise that little baby.”

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