Arroyo Grande girl to compete in Italian youth games

Angela Gemignani, 13, was a child who didn’t sit still, said her mother, Sheila. The Arroyo Grande girl instead did handstands in the living room and wanted to run rather than walk. As she got older, her energy was channeled into competitive gymnastics and track and field.

Arroyo Grande High School track and cross-country coach Sean Ricketts began working with her when she was in fifth grade.

“She started doing my little youth running camps,” Ricketts said, who also is a physical education teacher at Paulding Middle School, where Angela is now an eighth-grader. “Right away I could see how talented she was, saw that she really enjoyed running at the same time.”

It’s little wonder that Angela is one of 20 American youths attending the Italian National Olympic Committee Youth Games in Salerno, Italy, later this month. Nor is it surprising that she attended last year and won the bronze in the 1,000-meter run.

“I was a little nervous because they didn’t let us see our parents at all, because they wanted the team to be together,” Angela said.

But she said she had fun and made lasting friendships with her teammates, some of whom are returning this year with her.

To qualify for the Italian youth games, an athlete needs to be one-quarter Italian, 11 to 15 years of age and pass a national tryout. Prospective entrants are tested not only on athletic ability, but their attitude.

“The best times may not be what makes us choose them for the team,” said youth games representative Mico Licastro.

Organizers also take into account a young person’s personality, because the athletes are not yet at their full potential, he said.

Gary Heckman, Angela’s track coach at Paulding Middle School, can attest to her personality. He said she was humble and quiet, but always smiling, even though after she left track practice she would go to four-hour gymnastics practice.

“I see a student who has outstanding behavior, everything you want in an athlete,” he said. “Competitive, willing to take direction, very flexible in what’s going on, doesn’t get ruffled at all. Very easily approachable.”

Larry Goldzman, her physical education teacher — who calls her Angie — sees much of what Heckman does.

“The best thing about her is she’s always smiling and laughing and she’s out having fun with all of her friends and then — bam,” he said. “We’ll start playing a sport or going out for a little fitness run or do anything and she’s just focused.”

Angela isn’t the only one going to Italy. Team organizers choose 12 track and field athletes and eight swimmers, split evenly between girls and boys, to fly to Italy and compete against not only Italian youths, but international teams, as well.

Youths from other nations are invited to be in the games, where it is primarily Italian athletes competing in a variety of Olympic sports. Venezuela, Switzerland, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and America are currently the international teams competing alongside Italy.

Licastro has been with the program for three years and enabled the American team to join the youth games after more than a decade of absence.

He emphasized that there were two goals: to teach participants about the ethics of the Olympic movement and to connect them with their Italian heritage. The Olympics are not just about medals, he said, but about athletes being the best they can be.

“The main goal is to offer service to the citizens of the country who are invited to participate,” Licastro said. “For the children to have an opportunity to go to Italy and to reach some better understanding of where their parents or grandparents came from.”

While the trip will steep the youths in Italian culture, Angela revealed that last year she only ate pizza once, and it wasn’t exactly Italian.

“They put french fries and hot dogs on it because we’re American,” she said. “They only gave it to us, not like the people from Canada.”

Athletes who stand out in the games might also have a toe in the door for the Olympics. “Children who have strong potential, we bring them to the attention of the proper people to be considered for the evaluation,” Licastro said.

Originally published June 5, 2012 in the San Luis Obispo Tribune.