Gymnasts Olivia Kovach, Ava Hickman look forward to defending WPIAL titles

Monday, May 13, 2024 | 1:52 PM

They say good things come in small packages.

Mt. Pleasant’s Olivia Kovach and Hempfield’s Ava Hickman are emblematic of that long-standing and well-known adage.

Both girls are talented athletes who train at Ultimate Gymnastics in Delmont, where they are coached by Renee Ruggeri, a former competitor and lifetime gymnastics enthusiast.

Both ended the 2023-24 high school gymnastics season as WPIAL champions.

“Olivia is a leader and motivator as well as a high-level gymnast,” Ruggeri said. “She is positive and hard-working and doesn’t let anything get in her way. She is very determined.

“Ava is quiet but a very great performer. She is graceful and calm when she is in a competition.”

The 5-foot-1 Kovach is a sophomore at Mt. Pleasant. She competed in the advanced division at WPIALs, capturing first place on beam and second all-around.

Kovach also placed third all-around at the Pennsylvania Classic, representative of the state finals.

“Overall, I’m proud of my progress during the 2023-24 season,” she said. “It was a challenging but rewarding journey as a Level 9 gymnast, and I feel prepared to take on the challenges of training as a Level 10 next season.

“Competing at the WPIAL championships was an incredible experience. While I faced tough competition, I gave my all and was so excited to win gold on the balance beam and place second on the uneven bars and in the all-around. Similarly, at the Pennsylvania Classic, I was excited to place in the top three on every event, including third all-around, and I enjoyed the opportunity to compete against talented gymnasts from across the state.”

Kovach, 15, said the balance beam and floor exercise are her strongest events. She is looking forward to “upping her game” for the 2024-25 high school season.

“I aim to continue pushing myself to new heights as a Level 10 gymnast,” she said. “I’m committed to refining my technique, enhancing my strength and mastering new skills. I’ll be focusing on consistency, mental toughness and fine-tuning every aspect of my routines.

“My strongest event is definitely the balance beam. I feel confident in the event and love the skills I’m able to compete with. I don’t have a favorite event; I actually enjoy all of them: bars, beam, floor and vault. They all allow me to do different skills and are so much fun at this advanced level.”

Hickman, who stands 5-5, is a freshman at Hempfield. She competed as an Intermediate 2 gymnast at the WPIAL meet, where she earned the top spot on the uneven bars.

Hickman also finished first on bars and first all-around at the PA Classic.

“I personally think my ‘23-24 season went pretty well,” she said. “I’m very proud seeing how far I’ve progressed as a gymnast. It was a good year, but I think there is definitely room for improvement.

“I think I did really well at the WPIAL championships. I finally landed a back one-and-a-half twist for the first time ever on floor. And winning bars at both competitions made me really happy. I was super surprised when I won the all-around for my division at the PA Classic.”

Hickman, like Kovach, trains year-round and also competes for USAG.

“In USAG gymnastics, the competition season starts in the winter, and normally ends around April or May,” Hickman said. “I recently had my Level 8 state competition.”

The talented 14-year-old anticipates having a few more new tricks up her sleeve for the 2024-25 high school season.

“My expectations are honestly to just be more consistent with my skills, and to score higher than I have been for USAG,” she said. “For next season, I’ve been working on a few new skills that I haven’t quite figured out yet. For example, I’m working on a new vault entry called a ‘Yurchenko’ (a double pike first performed by Simone Biles). And for beam, I’m trying to get a back-handspring-back-tuck series which may take awhile.

“A ‘Yurchenko’ is a vault where you round off right before the springboard and back handspring onto the vault table. I will end up doing a back pike out of it. I have yet to attempt any double back tumbling, but I’m looking forward to trying this summer.”

Ruggeri, owner of Ultimate Gymnastics, was a WPIAL and state champion in her hall-of-fame heyday as a Baldwin gymnast.

She has coached Kovach for nine years and Hickman for three.

“Olivia has qualified for the Level 9 Eastern Nationals (at Myrtle Beach),” Ruggeri said. “She’s only the second gymnast in my 16 years at Ultimate to make it.

“Olivia is strong and a very dedicated gymnast. She never gives up. She’s had to overcome some back pain, but it has not set her back at all. She’s a wonderful girl to work with, and her determination is her strong point. She’s small, strong and determined, which makes for a great gymnast.”

Kovach lives on a farm and enjoys riding dirt bikes when she has a day off from practice. The Kovach family houses a large variety of animals on their farm, including goats, donkeys, alpacas, ducks, chickens, cats and a dog.

“I help take care of our animals when I am not competing,” Kovach said. “I am in the district cyber program because I practice during the day as well as coach preschool gymnastics during the day.”

Kovach’s ever-blossoming gymnastics career began at the age of 3.

“I always loved to tumble and flip when I was little and bouncing on my trampoline,” she said. “I took a summer class at Ultimate for beginner gymnastics and the coaches tested me for the team after my second class. The rest is history.

“I began competing with USAG at Level 2 when I was 7 years old.”

Ruggeri said Kovach usually draws a crowd when competing.

“Olivia’s strongest event is probably floor,” Ruggeri said. “She is dynamic and has a fun routine. The other gymnasts and crowd love it. She is fun to watch. She also has a very impressive front tuck mount on beam.”

Kovach is a quick learner both in the gym and in the classroom.

“It’s a pleasure to coach her and watch her grow,” Ruggeri said. “She practices four days a week and teaches classes for me three days. She is a great team leader and mentor for the little ones.”

Hickman has been competing in gymnastics for almost a decade.

“I honestly don’t remember, but I think I started gymnastics when I was around 5,” she said. “My favorite and best event is bars. I’ve always loved it and for awhile it has been my most consistent event. I love doing and watching bars. I think it is really satisfying to watch.”

Ruggeri agreed.

“Ava’s strong on bars,” the veteran coach said. “Her strengths include her form and her consistency on bars and beam.”

Ruggeri also coaches the Burrell gymnastics team, including the likes of juniors Riley Porter and Sydney Lawson, freshman Karcy Fenner and sophomore Kendel Fennell. Lawson trains at Brandy Marie’s Gymnastics in Sarver and joins her Burrell teammates for meets.

Along with Kovach and Hickman, other independent competitors at Ultimate include seniors Carlee Valenta (Penn-Trafford) and Ava Levine (Southmoreland); sophomore Isabel Orzeck (Hempfield); and freshmen Abby Levine (Southmoreland), Mary Sue Milliman (Kiski Area), Evelina Cupelli (Norwin), Paige Montgomery (Freeport) and Isabella Thomas (St. Joseph), who qualified for the Level 8 regionals in April.

“In addition to my individual goals, I want to express thanks to my coaches, teammates and supporters who have been with me every step of the way,” Kovach said. “Their encouragement has helped push me to be the best gymnast I can be, and I’m excited to continue representing Mt. Pleasant as a junior in the 2024-25 season.”

Hickman said: “Besides bars, my favorite parts of gymnastics are my teammates and coaches. I would be nowhere without them. They are some of the nicest people ever and I am forever grateful for them.”

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