Jeff Jacobs: Laggis’ love for gymnastics has endured highs and lows

February 24, 2018

MILFORD — Brianna Laggis will perform well Saturday in the CIAC Class S meet at Pomperaug. After all, the Foran High senior recently finished first in floor exercise and vault and second behind Daniel Hand’s Erin Naclerio as the most outstanding gymnast at the Southern Connecticut Conference championships.

Yet to define Laggis by her scores on any of the four apparatus in the class or State Open high school championships is to miss a painful story of what could have been and the equally beautiful story of a young woman’s love for her sport.

Laggis started tumbling at age 2 with a Mommy and Me class at Polly’s Gymnastics in Stratford. Showing promise, she progressed to Vasi’s International Gymnastics in Newtown and was competing at age 7. She climbed quickly through gymnastics’ junior levels. When she was 14, already at Level 10 for more than a calendar year, Laggis went to train with MG Elite in Morganville, N.J.

Two weeks into her freshman year at Foran she moved to New Jersey to live with a host family. The training was top-notch. The level was elite.

“She was home-schooled by a wonderful family,” Brianna’s dad John said.

“And I was a teammate of Laurie Hernandez,” Brianna said.

Hernandez, you may know, won an Olympic gold medal for the U.S. in Rio in the team event and a silver individual in the balance beam. Sure, there was some homesickness and trips home on the weekend for Laggis. There also were dreams.

“My dream,” Laggis said, “was always to compete Division I college.”

“She wanted to become an elite gymnast,” John Laggis said.

It struck on a Wednesday in 2015.

“I was doing a skill on beam,” Laggis said. “I felt something in my back shift. I went and put on an Icy Hot, came back and continued to do the rest of my workout. I worked out for the next two days. My dad came and pulled me out Friday.”

There were X-rays, an MRI, a CAT scan.

“It was a really bad L-5 back fracture,” Brianna said.

She returned home. She rehabbed. She would resume training at Connecticut Gymnastics Academy in Wallingford. Brianna Laggis may have broken her back, but the injury hadn’t broken her dream. In 2016, she would finish first in the all-around, first on vault and balance beam and second on uneven bars at the Level 10 USA Gymnastics Connecticut state championships. At the region championships, she again finished first all-around.

It was off to the Junior Olympic Nationals in Fort Worth, Texas, in May 2016. In Junior F — divisions determined by birthdate — she finished ninth on vault, 10th on floor exercise and 25th overall. By the time she was 15, Laggis was being recruited by up to eight Division I schools. There are 61 DI programs.

Laggis continued to practice into the summer of 2016 and then she stopped. The constant training, the competition — gymnastics extract a great toll.

“Her body was beaten up,” John Laggis said. “She kind of thought she would have to retire from the sport.”

“I decided I needed a break,” Brianna said. “My back just couldn’t handle it anymore. I started diving for Foran. I was thinking about coming back the next season with gymnastics.”

She took seventh in the Class M swim meet in the fall of 2016. It was then, in the oddest of places, her dream wasn’t broken. It was shredded late in the fall of 2016 in a practice for Powder Puff football.

“I was playing safety and I was running after the quarterback,” she said. “I took my last steps to grab his flag. I just took a step and everything just tore in my knee. Tore my ACL, meniscus and MCL. Took me a year to recover.”

Laggis served as Foran’s gymnastics team manager last year. She helped with the choreography with floor exercise and a little with balance beam, something she still does. Only this year, her senior year, she competes for Foran. The long road to recovery has led her to the short high school gymnastics season. Something, Laggis notes, that so many club coaches don’t want their gymnasts doing for fear of different coaching and injury.

“High school is a lot different,” Laggis said. “There are different rules. You don’t have as many requirements. I’ve been a Level 10 for five years and there are a few out there competing for high schools, but a lot of the girls I’m competing against are Level 6 and 7.”

Laggis took it slow at first, Foran coach Dina Savoca said, but has advanced to compete in all four events.

So where is she at now?

“After nationals in 2016, when I would say I was at my best, to now, I would say I’m doing half, maybe 40 percent, of what I used to do,” Laggis said.

“Honestly, she’s a shell of herself,” John Laggis said. “That part is frustrating, of course.”

There is another part. Dad sees it. Certainly, daughter feels it. In a sport in which young girls often burn out, Brianna Laggis’ love for gymnastics still burns. Yes, she lost muscle during her long layoff after knee surgery. Sure, her back hurts one day and her knee the next, but her heart still loves the game.

“I always wanted to compete in high school, to go out there and support my school,” Laggis said “Have fun with it. It’s a lot more fun than USAG. Honestly, I love it.

“I know there are some girls doing harder skills than me [even at the CIAC level]. With all the injuries I’ve had, I’m just lucky to be able to do the sport at all. I’m just doing my best.”

Her dad remembers the sacrifices. Come home from school, a couple hours of homework, off to the gym for four hours. Or homework right after school, go to the gym, eat, shower, homework to midnight.

“To see her be part of a team, see her happy with gymnastics, choreographing some things, it’s very rewarding,” he said. “She was being recruited when she was 12. That dream, well, it broke her heart.”

That is the pain and the beauty of Brianna Laggis’ story. She hasn’t decided where she’ll attend college yet. She hasn’t given up on gymnastics either.

“I don’t think my body is able to handle the amount of workout and the rigor of [major college],” she said. “Maybe I’ll do club, go to a school with a really good club team. We’ll see.

“It’s been such a great experience with my team and my coaches this year. I couldn’t ask for a better year. At the same time, it’s like, ‘Oh, I wish I could do what I used to be able to do.’ It’s hard knowing where I was at and where I’m at now. But at this point I’m happy and thankful to do the sport I love.”

She thought for a minute when she was asked what she learned about herself through her journey. At first she said, “I don’t know.’ And then Brianna Laggis — broken back, shredded knee, unbroken love for her sport — said, “I know I have a lot of passion for gymnastics.”

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123