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Olivia Priest

North Kingstown is once again home to the state’s top gymnast.

Olivia Priest became the school’s sixth state champion and first since 2016 when she logged the top score at the individual state championship on Sunday.

“I was really excited about how everything went,” Priest said. “I wasn’t completely expecting to win, but I was pretty hopeful. It was just really exciting.”

The sophomore finished fourth at the state meet last year, her success coinciding with a resurgence for the Skippers program, which had been struggling to field a team soon after a run of three consecutive state championships. The squad is now getting back to full strength, and Priest restored more luster with Sunday’s win. She joins Shileigh Martinez (2016), Alysse Pazienza (2010 and 2011), Nikki Bergeron (2001), Heather Chandronnet (1991) and Tina Ryan (1988) as Skipper champions.

“We are all so proud of Olivia’s win this weekend,” head coach Ilana Shemkovitz said. “Olivia works hard in the gym almost every day of the week – proving how much time and dedication it takes to make the skills these gymnasts are performing look effortless. Her determination, focus, and love for competition was clearly displayed at the state individual competition. She had an awesome meet.”

Coming in to Sunday’s championship, Priest was ranked at the top of the all-around entry list, her 35.275 from the dual-meet season holding as the best score of the season. The label added pressure, but also provided fuel.

“It definitely put more pressure on me,” she said. “I kind of felt that I had to win. Some of my coaches from my club team were like, ‘You’re number one right now. You’ve got to make us proud. Keep that spot.’ It was more pressure but it also helped to motivate me to do better.”

Priest opened on the vault. She failed to stick her landing and ended up crashing into a metal bar near the pad. When she nailed her second attempt for a score of 9.0, she was off and running.

“I wasn’t hurt or anything,” Priest said. “The second one was good. I was feeling good at that point.”

The uneven bars yielded Priest’s lowest score of the meet – an 8.95 – but she was pleased with it all the same. And it still earned her second place in the event.

“I’m doing a new skill that I’ve never competed with before and I made it, so I was happy with that,” Priest said.

She then nailed her balance beam routine, one day after falling off the beam in the regional championship meet. She scored a season-high 9.5 as the day’s top performer in the event.

“Beam was my best event of the night. I was so happy with that because I had fallen on beam the night before,” she said. “So when I hit, I was so happy.”

The floor exercise presented an opportunity for a big finish and Priest delivered it, scoring 9.45, also a season-best.

“Floor, I like that event to end on,” Priest said. “You can really just get all your energy out, and it’s something fun to end on.”

Priest said she doesn’t pay much attention to scores as the meet is happening, but is generally aware of how she’s doing. She was optimistic as the scores were tabulated but her success still left a little room for surprise. She totaled a 36.9, beating Warwick’s Madison Long by almost two full points.

“I was pretty sure I had it but I wasn’t positive,” Priest said. “When they did announce it, hearing I won by two points shocked me. I didn’t think I was that far ahead.”

The championship would have been sweet in any year, but it was especially welcome this season. Much of her club season was wiped out by the pandemic. And gymnasts, unlike some athletes, can’t do much work at home.

“It was definitely difficult. I wasn’t expecting how much I had lost,” she said. “I really had to focus on the basics and getting all my skills back. Some came back quicker than others but I did get everything back.”

Even then, there was doubt about competition, particularly at the high school level.

“It was an amazing season,” Priest said. “I really didn’t think we were going to have any meets this year, let alone have a high school season. I was so happy that I was able to compete and do well.”

Priest started doing gymnastics when she was just 3 years old. She trains out of Aim High Academy. She has been aware of North Kingstown’s gymnastics tradition, even when success was missing. Club gymnasts don’t always compete for their schools, but Priest decided to take the plunge when she attended a meet as an eighth grader.

“They only had three people on the team but everyone encouraged me to come out,” Priest said. “From then on, I really wanted to be a part of it and help them build a team again. We had five people my freshman year and then we were trying to convince other girls to do it. It’s been really fun trying to build the team back up to where it was before.”

The Skippers also had Isabelle Botto competing all-around at the state meet. She scored a 33.85 for 15th place. Lillian Thibeault finished 21st in the floor exercise. Madilyn Schartner and Mary Edstrom also competed in individual events.

South Kingstown’s Caroline Casey starred at the meet. The freshman finished as the runner-up in the vault with a 9.10. She also placed in the bars, scoring 8.55 for sixth.

Teammate Kayla Young finished seventh in the all-around standings with a 34.628. Brooke O’Donnell finished 20th with a 33.2 and Anna Coutu was 21st with a 33.1. Olivia Kay, Scarlett Segal, Katherine Howe, Hazel Amey, Leah DiRoma and Arden Ford also competed for the Rebels.

Olivia Pelletier competed all-around for the Prout/EWG co-op team and finished 26th with a 32.35. Her top showing was in the vault, where she took eighth. Leah Hauser, Brenna Purcell, Jordan Wale, Hannah Gurnon and Isabel Leal also competed with the Crusaders.

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