Waterford's Sophia Podeszwa finds a new sport (or two)
Waterford — Sophia Podeszwa was a gymnast, achieving Level 9 of the 10 on the USA Gymnastics ladder. She was partial to the uneven bars, loved the thrill of it, the adrenaline rush. Podeszwa traveled to Glastonbury four days a week or more to compete at a private club, Gymnastics Express. It was part of her routine, her fabric.
It was unwillingly and with a great deal of difficulty that she was forced to step away from the sport.
“I had to stop sophomore year because I had a concussion and also freshman year I grew eight inches,” Podeszwa, now a senior at Waterford High School, was saying last week. “I was tumbling for the floor exercise and I got a pretty serious concussion. I was suffering with headaches. I kept going to doctors.
“And I went through a big growth spurt that changed my center of gravity. I'm 5-8 or 5-9; I thought I was going to be 5-4.”
If you know anything about Podeszwa, however, and the sports-centric makeup of her family, there wasn't much of a possibility of her giving up competing entirely.
Although self-admittedly “all right” at softball when she was younger, Podeszwa is the one who grew up each spring watching her dad, Chris, serve as the assistant baseball coach at UConn, and summers on Cape Cod watching Chris as an assistant with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox.
It was, in fact, George Springer, yes, THAT George Springer, who was one of the first people to teach Podeszwa to do a back flip one day when she was hanging out with the former UConn star turned World Series MVP at the baseball field in Storrs back in 2010.
And so it was that Podeszwa set out to become good at another sport. Or better make that two sports.
First, Podeszwa is the two-time Eastern Connecticut Conference diving champion for Waterford, flying through the air with the greatest of ease, same as on the uneven bars only with a softer place to fall. She added a one somersault, backward two-and-a-half twist for the postseason, finishing fourth this season at the Class S state meet.
Second, she earned All-New England honors last spring in track and field, finishing fourth in the region in the 300-meter hurdles. She later also finished fourth in the state's heptathlon competition, winning the 800-meter portion.
Up Saturday for Podeszwa is the ECC Division II indoor track championship, beginning at 10 a.m. at the Coast Guard Academy.
She is the second seed in the 55 hurdles behind Griswold's Kalli'Ana Botelho, 8.82-8.83 seconds, and is part of the 4x180 relay which is also seeded second. Podeszwa, Jennifer Keth, Alicia Sanders and Zora LaBonte have a seed time of 1 minute, 53.76 seconds, trailing only Plainfield (1:50.07). She and LaBonte will also compete in the 300.
The ECC Division I meet will follow at 4 p.m.
“She's a captain,” Waterford indoor coach Jay Criscuolo said. “I know it's one of the cliches of sports, but she leads by example. Because of her background in gymnastics, she has the whole kinesthetic awareness; for a lot of the technique drills it's like having another coach.
“She's a real together student. She's applied to a lot of schools. I obviously want her to do track,” Criscuolo said before adding with a smile, “We have different lists (of colleges).”
Her new favorite
The spring was Podeszwa's best on the track, with success for her coming in one continuous, exceptional wave.
She was part of the ECC champion 4x400 relay team (4:06.63), also finishing second in the 300 hurdles (46.97) and third in the 100 hurdles (16.51).
At the Class M state meet, the Lancers' 4x400 team was second (4:06.33), with Podeszwa fourth in the 100 hurdles (15.90) and 300 hurdles (46.19). Waterford was second as a team. The State Open then brought a fifth-place finish for Podeszwa in the 300 hurdles (46.09) and a sixth for the relay (4:03.08), advancing both to the New England meet in Norwell, Mass. Yes, still improving.
Podeszwa's fourth-place time in New England was 45.49. The relay team was ninth.
“I like track more,” Podeszwa said of the difference between her two pursuits at Waterford. “Time doesn't lie. With diving it can be sort of subjective. … Outdoor it was definitely my best year, I think because I had indoor track in the winter (instead of gymnastics). I was proud of my team. We didn't have the best regular season, then we finished second in Class M.”
“Track is special,” Criscuolo said. “It's going against yourself. You react to you. I don't know if it's a surprise (how well she did in the spring). I expect she'll compete because of all the work she puts in.”
Podeszwa said she still lacks the experience and power to be as competitive in the 55 hurdles as she is in the 300 hurdles. She also lists the shot put as the event she most struggled with in the heptathlon.
“I'm doing it at a meet at East Lyme,” Podeszwa said of the shot, “to improve on my weaknesses a little bit.”
Chris Podeszwa is a 2016 inductee into the Waterford Athletic Hall of Fame. A 1989 graduate of the school, Podeszwa won a state championship as a part of the Lancers baseball program in 1988 and was a member of the New London American Legion team which won the 1987 state championship. He played at UConn along side current Huskies head coach Jim Penders.
Chris Podeszwa is a special education teacher at Montville High School, who along with his wife Isabella, the school psychologist at Oswegatchie Elementary School in Waterford, have three children, 17-year-old Sophia, 14-year-old Connor — who played for the Waterford team which went to the 2016 Babe Ruth 13-year-old World Series — and 12-year-old Emilia.
“I really think the town of Waterford is a good fit,” Sophia said. “(My dad) played sports here. I play sports here.”
Following her concussion, Sophia tried to resume her gymnastics career. She was most proud of the fact that at the state meet following her injury she was still able to qualify for regionals. But Podeszwa always wound up with a headache, finally being treated at Boston Children's Hospital.
“I was focused on gymnastics and it just spun around,” she said. “I ended up liking diving and track even more so than gymnastics. In diving, there's less impact (than gymnastics), but I like the thrill of it; I like being a little scared, I guess.”
Podeszwa recently finished taking her exams. A member of the National Honor Society, she hopes to major in biology at whatever college she chooses. She has achieved a personal best this winter in the 55 hurdles.
She is a leader by example.
Said Crisculolo: “Her performances don't surprise me anymore.”
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