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Gymnastics

Commack sophomore Christian Berbert has appealed to Section XI to be allowed to compete on the girls varsity gymnastics team this season. Photo from the Berbert family

As young as 7, Christian Berbert knew what he wanted to do with his life. After his parents set up a trampoline in the backyard, Christian wasted no time in putting it to good use. The natural-born athlete approached the trampoline less as a fun accessory and more as a mini training facility.

“He was like a dolphin to water,” Wayne Berbert said of his son’s first foray into gymnastics. “He just started jumping and flipping within days of having it. This has always been his sport — nothing compares to this.”

But Christian, a Commack High School sophomore and member of Artistic Gymnastics in Hauppauge, is now being forced to defend his dream in front of a panel of county officials.

Christian, 15, has been repeatedly denied the opportunity to join the high school’s girls varsity gymnastics team this season despite three appeals before Section XI, the governing body of athletics in Suffolk County, since the start of the 2017 school year. Because there aren’t any varsity boys gymnastics team in New York State, competing with the girls is Christian’s only shot to pursue his passion in a school setting.

The sophomore has the overwhelming support from members of the girls gymnastics team, his school’s adminstrator and athletic director.

“We will continue to advocate to provide an opportunity for this young man to compete alongside the girls as we feel it would be in the best interests of our student to participate on the Commack team,” read a statement on the school district’s home page Oct. 10, the day of the most recent appeal.

However, the Section XI panel, headed by Executive Director Thomas Combs, has blocked each request, saying Christian carries too much of a competitive advantage over the girls because he actively trains as a gymnast. There is also a concern among the board that his placement on the team will take a spot away from a girl.

But their arguments don’t hold water, according to Christian’s parents, who have appeared in his defense during the appeals process. Berbert said it’s unfair to claim his son has a competitive advantage since he’s never actually competed against the girls “so there’s no way to determine that.”

He also added that just because Christian’s a boy, it’s wrong to assume he is physically stronger than the girls.

“In gymnastics, strength is not really a determining factor,” Berbert said. “And the girls team doesn’t cut anybody from the team so everyone would be able to participate.”

“It’s deplorable how people in public education can do this to a child,” Christian’s father said. “They should be doing everything in their power to include kids, not exclude them. He’s being told ‘you can’t do the thing you love to do’ and for a 15-year-old kid, that’s tough.”

Christian’s mother, Karen Berbert, said while she agrees with the notion that girls should have equal opportunities, “you can’t diminish the boys and take away from them.”

“The same thing that the board is arguing, that the girls should have every opportunity, and they should, but so should the boys,” said his mother, who fears her son’s inability to compete in high school could affect his chances at receiving scholarships for college. “He wants to be part of the school. He wants to be involved. Gymnastics is his right arm.”

In September, the girls on the team wrote personal letters to Section XI members in support of Christian’s appeal to compete.

Alexandra Lewis, a sophomore gymnast, said the team “will develop more teamwork, school spirit, and positivity by having [him].” Sophomore Stella Rentzeperis wrote it was unfair to deny Christian a chance to compete because “our gymnastics program does not say girls or boys … both genders are allowed.”

Lilli Ferro, a sophomore on the team, said Christian comes to every practice and meet.

“We all really like him and he really wants to be on the team,” Lilli said. “I don’t believe it would hurt us if he was on the team. He would help us.”

Christian’s situation coincides with that of Liam Summers, a 15-year-old sophomore and gymnast at Connetquot High School, who is currently being denied to join his school’s girls team by
Section XI. He was able to be on the team last season because he had never competed in school or in a private club. Now, with more experience, he’s looked at as having a competitive advantage.

Christian, who trains four days a week and three hours each day, said the Section XI board is not
doing the right thing.

“What they’re doing to me and all the other kids trying to do what I’m trying to do is all wrong and completely unfair,” Christian said. “I think I can do real well on the team and give them support and help and just make the team stronger and better. But they don’t see that and, instead, think I’m going to ruin the girls’ chances. They’re completely

Jordan Ceccarini was recognized by the Miller Place board of education at a meeting last week for her remarkable accomplishments as a level 10 gymnast. From left: Nick Ceccarini, Nicholas Ceccarini, Jordan Ceccarini, Dawn Ceccarini and Athletic Director Ron Petrie. Front: Angelo Ceccarini. Photo by Alex Petroski

Gymnastics is grueling enough, even with the help and support of teammates and coaches. Sixteen-year-old Miller Place junior Jordan Ceccarini competes at the highest level for her age group with all of the pressure and physical toll that comes with gymnastics, minus that help and support. For her efforts, Ceccarini was honored by the district’s board of education at a meeting last week.

Miller Place doesn’t have a varsity gymnastics team. But beginning in eighth grade, Ceccarini represented Miller Place in competitions with the help of her outside club coach, Peter Neu.

“We wanted her to be a part of the school and participate in a sport, and this was the only way we could make that happen,” Jordan’s mom Dawn Ceccarini said. She and her husband Nick were extremely grateful for Superintendent Marianne Higuera’s and the board of education’s kind words about their daughter.

Ceccarini is a superstar in the local gymnastics world. She is classified as a level 10, the highest level of competition available for amateur gymnasts. The next step up is Olympic level. In 2013, as a level 9, she won the national championship for her age group in floor exercise. As a level 10, she placed ninth in the country on the balance beam, to go along with countless other state and regional accomplishments. In May, Ceccarini will travel to Texas to compete in nationals, representing the Northeastern region.

“I’m excited,” Ceccarini said. “I think winning is a little bit of a far reach, but I hope to place and do well.”

Her unassuming, humble outlook for a national tournament, which automatically implies a spot in the top 50 gymnasts in the country for her age group, was also noted by Miller Place athletic director Ron Petrie during the board of education meeting, along with her rare talent.

“That is just something that is not only unbelievable and impressive, we haven’t had something like this come to Miller Place since I’ve been here,” Petrie said. He’s served as the district’s athletic director since 2015, though he has taught and coached football at Miller Place since 2000.

Ceccarini, or “Momo,” as her mom said she’s also known, started doing gymnastics when she was 2 years old, at “mommy and me” classes, though it was around seventh grade that her mom said she might be special. Her five days per week, four hours per day practice schedule has netted Ceccarini a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh after she graduates from Miller Place in 2017. It has also cost her some normal 16-year-old social activities, like attending prom this year, though Ceccarini seems to take everything in stride, with the help of a competitive fire that both her mom and athletic director recognize.

Though she competed without the benefit of a coach or a team, Ceccarini’s time at Miller Place will not be forgotten after she leaves.

“I have no doubt that one day Jordan will be inducted into the Miller Place Athletic Hall of Fame as a result of her athletic achievements,” Higuera said.