First-years Copperwheat, Washington look to usher in new era of Pitt gymnastics


Photo courtesy of Alex Mowrey, Pitt Athletics

A Pitt gymnast lands in the Fitzgerald Field House.

By Alexander Ganias, Staff Writer

New Hampshire sat at the vault for the last rotation, while George Washington rotated to the beam and Pitt, the host of the Feb. 20 tri-meet, continued to the floor. It was a trying day for first-years Hallie Copperwheat and Sidney Washington, who had participated in almost every event so far that day.

For Washington, competing in college gymnastics had been a long time coming.

“As young gymnasts get older, they realize college gymnastics looks like a lot of fun,” Washington said. “It was around middle school when I could see myself in college doing gymnastics.”

Washington is a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and an alum of Saline High School. A gymnast at a very young age, Washington said her mother, who was a dancer, inspired her. Her father Saddi Washington, a former Western Michigan basketball player and current assistant coach at Michigan, said he wanted his kids to discover their own path and not to be tied down to what their parents do.

“I think she chose the right sport for her,” he said. “We tried to expose them to as many different things as we could, and I wasn’t going to assume she would like basketball like I did, but that’s fine with me.”

Washington remembered trying out other sports at a young age, but they didn’t seem like the sports for her.

“My parents put me in soccer first,” Washington said. “But I would always be doing cartwheels on the field. So I guess they knew from the get-go that gymnastics was what I wanted to do.”

When head coach Samantha Snider announced her as part of the 2022 signing class, she singled Washington out and claimed she would make an impact as soon as her first competition.

Of course, Snider couldn’t have signed Washington if the then-high schooler didn’t want to come to Pitt. Washington admitted that there were other schools in the running, namely Illinois. But Pitt edged out the Illini due to her unfamiliarity with its location, which she said was a huge reason she signed.

“I chose Pitt for a lot of reasons,” she said. “I loved the coaches’ vision for the program, but I also love this city — it’s a completely new environment for me.”

Now a Panther, she was preparing for the final station of that day’s meet, the floor routine. Washington took the floor and Biggie Smalls’ “Hypnotize” started playing. She started with a few dance moves — which only the floor routine allows — and a double pike. Her second tumble ended with her stage-kicking her teammate, who fell to the floor. She finished with a double backflip as the music ended.

She posed at the end for a split second before turning around and celebrating with her teammates. Washington knew she performed well and her score confirmed that — a 9.825. She said each event gives her more confidence as her season progresses.

“Coming from club gymnastics, I’ve been doing what I’ve always been doing,” Washington said. “It’s so exciting to finally get these high scores that you don’t normally get in club. But to also get these scores for your team, that’s really exciting too.”

Meanwhile, off to the side at Washington’s routine was Copperwheat, eagerly cheering on her teammate. She chose Pitt for many of the same reasons as Washington, but she said Pitt was her choice as soon as she visited Oakland.

“The facilities here are unmatched in both athletics and academics,” Copperwheat said. “As soon as I met the coaches and came to visit here, I was done. I knew where I wanted to go.”

Copperwheat’s journey to Pitt was also similar to Washington’s. Like her teammate, she started gymnastics at a very young age and didn’t stray from that path. But the biggest difference between the two is that she came from the United Kingdom.

She recalled her experiences as an international recruit and said it was different from the typical recruitment process.

“It was pretty smooth sailing in terms of the coaches coming to visit,” Copperwheat said. “But my flight situation was a mess. I was at Chicago Airport for a couple hours, and I ended up in North Carolina. It wasn’t easy to move, mainly because of the time difference, but being here makes it all easier.”

International recruits are nothing new for Pitt. Women’s soccer, women’s basketball and the swim and dive teams have all benefited from international recruits. Gymnastics is no exception, as Copperwheat has performed above the competition in her debut season. She recorded the third-highest all-around score in Pitt history on Feb. 6, when she posted a 39.500 total score.

Copperwheat explained what her high-scoring performances do for her confidence.

“I just hit one event after the other,” Copperwheat said. “It’s so nice to actually put all four events together. It gave me confidence that I deserved to be here as an all-arounder.”

But with the exception of first-year Nova Scotia native Jordyn Ewing, Copperwheat is the only international recruit on the gymnastics roster. She said this hasn’t stopped her from becoming incredibly close with her teammates.

“I have not known a team to be as tight or as close as we are,” Copperwheat said. “We work really hard in the gym, that when it pays off on the floor, it’s a feeling unlike any other. And to do everything for the team, you just can’t describe it.”

Both Washington and Copperwheat played crucial roles in Pitt’s record-setting win over New Hampshire and George Washinton, helping the Panthers achieve a 196.775 total score — the highest in program history. They knew setting records and leaving their marks on the program was part of the plan when they got here. Washington said the coaches told her how the new class hopes to usher in a new era of Pitt gymnastics.

“They said ‘you’re going to be a game changer,’ about me and the other freshmen,” Washington said. “The season hasn’t been perfect, but once we get everything together, our program will be up there in no time.”

Along with the all-time team high score, they’ve also helped set new beam and uneven bars records. They will not be at Pitt forever, and both Washington and Copperwheat understand this, but neither seem to want to leave the sport they’ve both been a part of since infancy.

“There are loads of things I want to do after school,” Copperwheat said. “But I can’t ever get away from the sport. College coaching seems fun, so I’ll never take it off the table.”