By Paul Augeri

Pictured: Alison Albanese competes on the balance beam during her freshman gymnastics season. (photo credit: Casey Davern)

Coginchaug’s athletic department might want to invest in an official “Blue Devils” leotard for gymnast Alison Albanese. She’s certainly earned it.

The sophomore, who represents the school as a “team of one” within the Daniel Hand program, earned First Team All-State recognition from the Connecticut High School Coaches Association for the second year in a row. She also was runner-up in the all-around at the Shoreline Conference championship meet.

That plain ol’ blue leotard she wears during competition needs a major upgrade before next season.

“She’s a really driven kid,” said her coach, Hand’s Kelly Smith. “She works very hard and she wants to do well, both as proof of her hard work and that she’s competitive in a good way. She thrives in competition and wanted some championship exposure this year. I’m glad she was able to do that.”

Before entering the ninth grade at Coginchaug, Albanese trained with, and competed exclusively for, the Connecticut Gymnastics Academy in Wallingford. Hers was a classic one-sport commitment – gymnastics five days a week, for four-and-a-half hours a day across 12 months.

She grew into a high-level competitor, but she also wanted more.

“I wanted to be able to do other sports in high school and try new things,” she said.

Coginchaug’s Alison Albanese finished second in the all-around at this year’s Shoreline Conference championships.

Albanese had no intention of letting go of the sport in high school and was fortunate that the Hand program could provide the opportunity for her to continue competing.

“Staying a gymnast is what I wanted to do, but now it’s less hours and I have free time as well,” she said. “Because I’m a team of one, it’s hard that you’re not counted with a team, but the Daniel Hand team feels like my team. My teammates became my best friends within my first two weeks. They have been really supportive and I’m glad I joined. It’s fun to be with them competing. The competitions are so much fun.”

It’s a win-win all around. Albanese continues to excel in her primary sport while lending her athleticism to the volleyball team in the fall. She’s also joined the outdoor track for the first time this spring and has been encouraged to at least give the pole vault a go.

Meanwhile, Smith, who’s coached at Hand for 15 years, gets the reward of mentoring and guiding another young talent.

“The commitment level (at an academy) makes it tough to be involved in other sports,” said Smith. “I think it’s something really special to put on your school colors and competing for the pride of your high school. As wonderful as the private sector is, it’s not same.

“Alison is a really strong all-around gymnast. She does not have a weak spot, in my opinion. If I had to pick one thing that Alison has stood out on the most, it’s her on the balance beam. She scores out of a 10 on the balance beam, so she’s doing difficult routines.”

Of all the disciplines in the sport, Smith said Albanese rates highest on the beam in the state rankings. She did not fall at all her sophomore season.

“With the difficult routine she performs on the beam, not only did she not fall once, she scored above a nine on several occasions,” Smith said. “The state rankings change all the time. The last time I checked, Alison was in the top 10 for the balance beam.”

Albanese concluded her freshman season with scores good enough to qualify for the State Open, and her performance earned her First All-State recognition.

“As a freshman it was really a fantastic achievement for her,” Smith said. “She was excited to participate this year as well. She came back with goals of repeating that accolade.”

COVID changed the gymnastics landscape entirely for the 2020-21 season. Competitors performed their routines that were streamed/recorded for judges. There was no State Open this winter. Close to home, the Shoreline championship was the signature event.

On the bars, Albanese tied for first with Rebecca Rosenblum-Jones of the Haddam-Killingworth/Hale-Ray/Morgan co-op squad. She was second on the beam, won the floor exercise and finished second in all-around to Juliana Gagliardi of H-K/Hale-Ray/Morgan.

“I was really proud of myself,” said Albanese, who noted she would have preferred to compete in a traditional setting in front of fans and competitors. “(The result) showed how hard I’ve worked in practice and how consistent I was in past meets.”

Smith was pleased to see Albanese achieve these outcomes, but stressed that she’s happiest to see her become a well-rounded kid.

“What she achieved before came from a big-time commitment, but it’s something that limits one’s ability to participate in other things,” the coach said. “She has had incredible success in high school gymnastics, and now that she is finding other things outside the gym, while still being very successful in gymnastics, is just a great thing.”

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