Olympia’s Alison Overton and Sonia Chirila compete at Ottawa’s first-ever Ontario Acro Cup. Photo: Dan Plouffe
By Dan Plouffe
With numerous new facilities opening and under development, a plethora of competitions hosted locally, athletes excelling at the top levels, and diverse forms of the sport practiced in different pockets of the city, gymnastics’ popularity is exploding in Ottawa.
There are many new local artistic gymnastics clubs on the scene, such as Kanata Gymnosphere, Barrhaven’s Precision Gymnastics, and Resolute Gymnastics, temporarily based in Carleton Place but set to unveil their facility in the Kanata Town Centre in the coming months.
Longer-running suburban clubs continue to grow in membership and space. Olympia Gymnastics has expanded its facility on the border of Kanata and Stittsville, Les Sittelles recently moved into its new home on Taylor Creek Dr., and fellow Orleans club Tumblers Gymnastics Centre is eyeing an innovative development that would see it move in a few years.
And older clubs within the city’s core such as Ottawa Gymnastics Centre, Nepean-Corona and GCGC in Gloucester continue to welcome thousands themselves, while Starr Gymnastics focuses on recreational gymnastics at its three locations.
Other forms of gymnastics have gained a foothold too. Laws of Motion has found niche as local innovators of parkour – an emerging form of “urban gymnastics” practiced within other clubs as well – the Spring Action club led by 2004 Olympian Heather Ross-McManus specializes in trampoline, and the Kanata, Ottawa and Pirouette rhythmic gymnastics clubs all have their own long histories.
High-level meets fill more weekends than not during the competitive season. With the space of a month, OGC will host a provincial women’s artistic qualifier (Mar. 3-5), Kanata Rhythmic will stage its 27th Kanata Cup (Mar. 11-12), the Tumblers Classic goes Mar. 24-26, and Corona’s Jester’s Cup is Apr. 1-2.
“All the gym clubs in Ottawa, and across Canada, everybody has their place,” highlights Laurie Loh, a veteran of the local gymnastics scene, now based at Kanata Gymnosphere. “From the really fun, recreational gymnastics centres, and then people go through those and they want a little bit more because they get excited about the sport and their progress.
“It’s great to see kids in the gym being active, no matter what level they’re doing.”
Ottawa hosts 1st Acro Cup
An emerging form of gymnastics made its local debut as Olympia Gymnastics hosted the region’s first-ever Ontario Acro Cup Feb. 18-19.
“It’s a very exciting sport to watch,” says Olympia head coach Nausikaa Muresan, noting the Cirque du Soleil-style feats can resemble cheerleading a little bit on occasion. “There’s definitely a ‘wow’ factor to it.”
Switching into acro gave Olympia’s Alison Overton new life in gymnastics.
“I was kind of ready for a change, but I didn’t want to drop gymnastics right away,” signals the Grade 11 All Saints Catholic High School student who now has a lighter training load compared to her competitive artistic background.
Tackling an “amazing” new discipline has been fun, she notes, as has getting the opportunity to work with athletes who are younger (and smaller/easier to lift and throw).
“I’ve always wanted to have a tiny sister who I could be an influence on,” indicates Overton, who also coaches at Olympia. “It’s fun. They laugh easily at my jokes.”
Overton’s pairs partner, 10-year-old Sonia Chirila, likewise enjoys having more experienced athletes guide her.
“They know more, so if I’m having trouble with one part, they will know how to fix it,” she explains.
The Acro Cup featured 200 athletes (mostly from Oakville and Mississauga, including athletes who went to last year’s acro worlds in China) and attracted over 1,000 spectators.
It was the first competition of any kind that Olympia’s hosted, and came days after the club opened its expanded space to accommodate registration and a warm-up area.
“We now have the perfect size and shape for a gymnastics facility,” manager Dezso Mesko says of the 12-year-old club that now occupies 15,000 square feet.
1st Envol at Sittelles' new home
The following weekend brought another milestone competition to town as Les Sittelles hosted the first edition of their 28-year-old Envol competition on Feb. 25-26 at their new facility in Orleans.
“This is a big project,” underlines general manager Jocelyne Legault. “It’s so refreshing to know that it’s going well. The kids are happy, the parents are happy, and we’re finally setup and rolling with all our programs.”
Les Sittelles are also set to kick off a new sports-study program in conjunction with the French Catholic school board come next fall.
“Gymnastics is a sport that requires a lot of training,” highlights Legault, noting 12 to 20 hours a week is the norm for competitive athletes. “Those kids now can now train right after school and be done at 5 or 6 and have their evenings and weekends to themselves, and the parents too. It’s a better balance for their family life.”
Unlikely Elite Canada medal for Rideau gymnast after back injury
Local gymnasts performed on big stages outside the city in February as well. National Capital/OGC product Sam Zakutney earned the third conference rookie of the week honour of his young NCAA career at Penn State.
And well-decorated 16-year-old gymnast Sofia Baggio earned perhaps the biggest medal of her career yet – her first in senior high-performance against the country’s best gymnasts of any age – with a vault event final bronze at Elite Canada Feb. 2-5 in Halifax.
“My friend Shallon (Olsen) just came from the Olympics and I made it to vault finals with her,” notes the past Canadian champ in the national open division. “I was just taking it all in to be with these girls. It’s crazy that I’m in the same level as them.”
Baggio’s medal win is all the more remarkable considering she couldn’t even bend over 2 weeks before the competition, struck by a back injury.
“I was really excited just to be there,” underlines Baggio, who had to skip out on the uneven bars event due to the injury. “I was just proud of myself for going out there even when I was in a lot of pain. Through that whole competition, I was really uncomfortable, but I pushed through because I wanted to be there so badly.”
Persistence is an ongoing theme in Baggio’s breakthrough, having been through a “really tough” year where she struggled to simply find a place to train. Baggio changed clubs multiple times, but is now back with long-time coach Siarhei Bialkovich.
“I did go through ups and downs, and wasn’t sure what I was doing with gym, I didn’t know if my head was all there,” says the Rideau Gymnastics athlete. “But right now I can tell myself that I’m so happy that I kept working and am still doing gym, because I absolutely love it.”
The Rideau competitive team and associated Resolute Gymnastics Centre sprung from Baggio and a handful of other athletes’ struggles. The club will soon take full possession of a 25,000 square-foot facility in the Kanata Town Centre that it hopes to have ready for gymnastics come early June.
Featuring elite series equipment and soft landing pits beside every apparatus (minus low-flying pommel horse) to relieve pressure on gymnasts’ joints, the centre is being created to best serve athletes striving for high performance in the sport, says Resolute co-owner Atanas Popov, who visited top facilities in Great Britain created in advance of the London 2012 to help develop his plans.
“I think this is a combination of the best of everything that they have,” he indicates. “If you have the athletes that are willing and you don’t have the proper setup, the results will never come.
“If you have the setup along with the coaches, it’s inevitable that sometime down the road we’ll have kids that could go all the way.”
Tumblers eye possible move to future purpose-built sports hub
Though they missed their planned Elite Canada appearance due to injury, Juliette Chapman and Hanna Nixon from Tumblers Gymnastics Centre were granted exemptions to compete at the Canadian Championships later this season based on their strong past results.
Their club is another one deep into new facility development plans, having recently unveiled an initial concept to its competitive program participants for a new and bigger home near Mer-Bleue and Innes roads in Orleans.
The proposed project would see Tumblers become the anchor tenant of a sports services hub that could include smaller spaces for other sports like floor hockey, basketball or obstacle course racing, plus other complimentary businesses like a physiotherapy clinic or a yoga studio.
“There is a genuine interest on the team that’s working to build this property to leave some sort of legacy for the community,” says Brian Dagenais of the Black Sheep Developments company leading the project. “If it serves as a model for others to be built, whether in Ottawa, or another city, then it has a chance to be something very, very special.”
Kanata Gymnosphere imports pair of Romania-trained coaches
With the ever-growing interest in gymnastics, it’s been a struggle for many clubs to find capable coaches to keep up with the demand, particularly for the top competitive levels.
At Kanata Gymnosphere, their solution is to bring in high-level coaches from overseas. Romania-born Ana Maria Huncu arrived in January after 17 years in Italy, while former Republic of Moldova national team gymnast Fiodor Martea has been coaching the competitive program since August.
The mentality behind coach development in eastern Europe is quite different, Loh underlines, noting Martea spent five years in university in Romania to earn his masters degree in sport science with a specialization in artistic gymnastics.
“Each club is supported by government, the ministry of education,” Martea illustrates as an example of the seriousness of gymnastics in eastern Europe, though gymnastics at a recreational level simply didn’t exist back home, he adds.
“Here, you have a very big base of kids from which you can find those kids you’d love to have in competitive,” highlights the 25-year-old. “This is very positive. In Canada, everyone can do gymnastics.”
The community’s enthusiasm for the sport also struck Huncu, who’s enjoyed “a warm welcome in a cold country,” she smiles.
“I was amazed by the amount of people coming on the weekend,” signals the coach who worked with Sydney 2000 Olympic all-around champion Andreea Raducan for close to three years when she was a teenager with her hometown Barlad club.
“I like that they like gymnastics,” Huncu adds. “You have lots of opportunities to grow, in gymnastics with techniques, and you prepare them for life also. It really helps the kids grow up better.”