NFA gymnastics returns ... with help from a familiar leader

Killingly - It's a different chapter in history for the Norwich Free Academy gymnastics team, one in which not one of the eight members of the program have ever competed in a high school meet before.

"They don't know me," said coach Sue Hopkins-Terrell, in her 21st season overall, but with the school not fielding a program in three of the last four years. "They keep explaining to me how to do this or this.

"It's really hilarious. They'll be explaining why different grips don't work on bars, as if I've never done the bars."

Here's the thing: Hopkins-Terrell loves it. Every minute.

Having taken a break from coaching to attain her sixth-year degree in administration in order to become department head for health and physical education at NFA, then due to illness in her family, Hopkins-Terrell is back in her natural role.

A member of NFA's first state championship gymnastics team in 1977 - and a two-time Class L champion on the bars - Hopkins-Terrell later coached the Wildcats to seven straight state championships from 1996-2002.

This year's team, the first to compete for NFA since 2011, features three freshmen, two sophomores and three juniors who are beginners. Because NFA donated most of its equipment to the Windham High School program, Hopkins-Terrell said, the Wildcats use Thames Valley Gymnastics as their home.

Following a tri-meet Monday night at Deary's Gymnastics with Eastern Connecticut Conference favorite Woodstock Academy and Old Lyme, NFA's second meet of the season, the Wildcats are 2-1 overall.

Woodstock won Monday with 148.2 points, followed by NFA with 128.25 and Old Lyme with 117.05. Waterford, East Lyme and Killingly also competed but did not field enough athletes to post a team score.

NFA freshman Taylor Churchill was second on bars with a score of 9.55, her first event of the night, and was third on the beam (8.65). The top three all-around finishers were from Woodstock, led by Grace Logan with a 37.85. Churchill, a Level 10 gymnast at Thames Valley, was fourth at 36.1.

"We learn a lot," said freshman Rhiannon Wilbur, another Thames Valley competitor who attends NFA practice from 3-6 and then stays at the gym for club practice until 9. "When I heard there was going to be a (high school) team, I was really excited. I didn't think it was going to be as hard as it is balancing everything."

Hopkins-Terrell said athletic director Gary Makowicki came to her this year and asked her to reconsider coaching.

"I thought, 'What did I do with my time after school that I thought was going to be so valuable?'" Hopkins-Terrell said.

"With Robin (Deary-Fillmore, Woodstock and Killingly coach) and Gene Michael (Deary, Robin's brother and assistant coach), it's been our life. My family is my family, but gymnastics is part of my family; it's like coming home."

Hopkins-Terrell lost her father, Phillip, in August. She said she can always remember her mom and dad watching her compete and then coach. She said reconnecting with gymnastics has helped her feel closer to her dad.

"He was a hard worker. I'm a hard worker. I want him to see me ... that's what I'm doing to make you proud," she said.

Hopkins-Terrell credits Thames Valley coach Shari Cirrito for sharing her gym space, as well as several of her athletes. She hopes that enough of her gymnasts will have a good experience that it will allow the program to grow.

The coach said Monday's meet, competing against Woodstock, was also a valuable learning tool.

"Hopefully they'll say, 'I could do that. I could do that,' or maybe, 'I need to do that,'" Hopkins-Terrell said. "We can't touch (148.2), but we can try.

"We're learning every meet."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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