By JOHN GORALSKI
Jessie Gianatti exploded across the gym like a bullet, and she didn’t waste her time with dazzling spins or corkscrew twists. The collision with the vault seemed to hurtle her like shrapnel into the air and she tucked into a dizzying tumble. When she struck the mat, the singular thump echoed through the gym like a gun shot.
Gianatti certainly didn’t look like a freshman at her first state meet. Nobody questioned that the freshman’s score was the highest, but a groan swept through the crowd when it was announced.
If that wasn’t a perfect 10, what was?
“I thought it was perfect,” she said with a laugh. “I really did. It was probably the best one I did all season, and everyone was so happy. Then, the score came up. It was like, ‘Really?’… I kind of felt like I let everyone down.”
At the time, Gianatti’s score was the highest of any previous Lady Knight, but it wasn’t enough to push Southington past Hall for the team’s first state title. On the other hand, it marked a turning point for the up-and-coming program.
Over the next three years, Southington gymnasts would mount one of the most awe-inspiring runs that any Connecticut sport had ever seen, and Gianatti led the charge. As a freshman, she broke a long-standing drought to become the first Lady Knight to compete in the all-around at the New England championship. She was just getting started.
“She absolutely belongs in the hall of fame,” said former Lady Knight coach Byron Knox. “She started it all. She set that trend with that magic run we had. If it wasn’t for her leadership…” The outspoken coach trailed off into a rare silence…
Gianatti never set out to launch a dynasty or push a program to dizzying heights. She just wanted to compete and have fun with her high school team. But when word about her dominance began to trickle down to the local clubs, a wave of elite gymnasts began to pour into the Southington High School tryouts.
The next year, Southington would break through as the undisputed champs, capturing titles at the state and New England levels for her next three seasons. Along the way, Lady Knight gymnasts toppled every individual, event, and team record in the state and the region.
Once again, Gianatti led the charge.
Over her four year varsity career, Gianatti collected 15 Class L medals, 12 state open medals, and six New England medals. Twice, she claimed a top 5 finish in the New England all-around, but it was on vault where she truly left her mark.
Year-round gymnasts were perfecting complicated skills to try to beat the Southington speedster, but Gianatti was untouchable with her handspring front, a simple double flip over the table. Nobody was faster, flew higher, or landed with a bigger pop. Better to do one thing supremely than a hundred things well.
“By that time, everyone was doing the Yurchenkos, which was the round-off, back handspring,” she said. “I just loved the fact that mine was a blind landing. It’s totally different going backwards and sticking because you can see it. But when you’re going forward and you stick it, you’re sort of shocked.”
It looked like a simple vault, but it wasn’t easy at all. That’s why it starts from similar point values as some of the more acrobatic, twisting vaults. The landing is one of the most difficult in gymnastics.
“She was quick. She was fast, and she was strong, so that enabled her fly off in the air, higher than everyone else,” said Knox. “It’s a blind landing, so the fact that she stuck those landings in competition multiple times says a lot about what she did in her training—and it was minimal training, too.”
That’s what made Gianatti’s success so impressive. Teammates and opponents were honing their crafts year-round to prepare for the high school competitions. But while they were in the gym, Gianatti was on the soccer field. By the time she reached the high school, gymnastics was just something she did between seasons.
“I was still practicing,” she said. “I just wasn’t getting that competition year round like so many got, but the whole team just carried you. I wanted to work hard, and I wanted to be up there with them. I knew that I didn’t do it as much as them, but during that season I just wanted to stay with them.”
So Knox helped her develop off-season training and stretches. When her soccer teammates were resting at home, Gianatti was still working out. Long after soccer games and practices had ended, Gianatti would be hard at work.
“She trained harder and longer than everyone else,” said Knox. “Her teammates were at an even higher level in club, but Jess never quit. She worked really hard at her craft. She was determined to make her weaker areas into stronger ones.”
You would think that this would hurt her performance on the soccer field, but Gianatti seemed to be even better on the grass than on the mat. She wasn’t tall in stature, but she was bigger, stronger, and faster than anyone else on the field.
Then why did she only have six goals and six assists going into her senior year? Double-digit scoring (10) and double digit assists (13) as a senior looked good, but it still didn’t match the top scorers in the state. That’s because Gianatti was a defenseman…by choice.
She started out as a scorer in the youth leagues, but was shifted to the back line during tryouts for a Farmington club. By the time she arrived at the high school, she had developed into a smothering defender that could spark the offense from anywhere on the field. Most teams transition from midfield, but Gianatti launched the attack from the back row.
“It was her attitude. She did the mental part of the game better than almost any other player that I’ve coached,” said former Lady Knight soccer coach Sal Penta. “When she came onto the field—whether it was practice or in a game—she was just so focused on what she had to do that day. No matter what was going on, she came prepared and you got her best.”
Soon, college scouts took notice. Southington’s diminutive defender was shutting down division one prospects. She was single-handedly stopping unstoppable scorers. She was out-jumping and out-hustling bigger and stronger players at midfield.
“I just loved fighting for the ball. I would rather win a 50/50 ball than score a goal. Really,” she said. “I never wanted to go back to offense because, if I wanted to, I could still run up and down the field.”
Her biggest challenge came as a junior when the Lady Knights met Simsbury in a Class LL quarterfinal game that nobody expected Southington to win.
Southington’s 5-foot defender was challenged with stopping UConn-bound Meghan Cunningham. Penta won one state championship and multiple division titles, but he said that this is the game that he remembers most.
Coaches drew up a sort of box-and-one scheme with Gianatti marking Simsbury’s scorer. Gianatti did her part, and the Knights eked a 1-0 victory over the defending state champions.
“We created a lineup that didn’t give us as much offense, so we knew we would have to depend upon counter-attacking to score. But that was all predicated on what Jess could do,” said Penta. “The reason we won that game was because of what she did. She was able to keep Cunningham agitated enough to keep her out of the goal.”
That game drew scouts from all levels the following round. Even UConn scouts appeared to find out about the girl that stopped the unstoppable force. Gianatti shrugged off some of the bigger programs. She turned down one offer to play soccer and gymnastics. Instead, she chose to compete at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University because she just liked their blue-collar style.
“I wasn’t even fully scouted. I sort of fought my way in there,” she said. “During a preseason tournament, one of the defenders had gotten hurt. I went in, and ever since that game I made it into the lineup.”
Gianatti played in all 19 games as a freshman and earned letters every year as a Pioneer. Her teams captured three conference titles, three NCAA tournament berths, and Gianatti was at the center as an all-conference defender. As a sophomore, her defense led the East Coast Conference with a 0.513 goals against average.
Once again, Gianatti stepped onto a team and brought it to unheralded success. Whether it was soccer or gymnastics didn’t seem to matter.
“Jessie’s hard work both on and off the field was exceptional. She was the type of leader that led by example,” said Pioneer coach Mark Dawson. “Anything we needed her to do she would do. Jessie played just about every minute of every game for her four years.”
So it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named Gianatti as a member of the Class of 2016. On Wednesday, Nov. 9, the multi-sport star will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“It’s an honor because I never really thought about myself like that,” she said. “I want to be remembered as a team player. I just loved being part of a team. Of course being part of a successful team is even better.”
That commitment to every team is what eventually set her apart.
“That goes to show what kind of a kid she is,” said Penta. “The role she played with so much success was defending. As a team, that’s where we needed the help, and she had no problem playing back.”
“Jessie was a winner,” echoed her college coach. “During her four years, LIU Post had one of it most successful runs in program history.”
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Gianatti comes out on top.
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460, ext. 104.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.