Fantastic Gymnastics: A handful of Ottawa athletes have the hometown advantage against Canada’s best gymnasts

2020 Canadian Olympic team hopeful Sam Zakutney returns to his hometown in pursuit of a repeat national team selection through the May 21-26 Canadian Artistic Gymnastics Championships at Carleton University. (Photo: Gymnastics Canada / John Cheng)

By Charlie Pinkerton

As hundreds of gymnasts arrive in the nation’s capital for the national championships, Ottawa’s own are preparing right here at home for the opportunity of a lifetime, and one that, just a year ago, one local competitor thought he may have lost out on forever.

Jaiman Lawrence is one of three Rideau Gymnastics athletes competing at the 2019 Canadian Championships in Artistic Gymnastics, being held May 21-26 at Carleton University.

Aside from the significance of this year’s event serving as his debut in nationals’ senior division, it carries extra weight for the 18-year-old, who thought he may never return to gymnastics after a devastating injury last year.

Lawrence had been doing gymnastics competitively for close to 10 years when the sport was almost taken from him during a routine warm up. While training in the lead up to last year’s Tour Selection, he attempted a simple straight jump on the floor. While coming down out of the air, he remembers hearing the sound of a crack come from his left ankle.

Just like that he had severely torn two ankle ligaments and broken a bone as well.

“I thought it was going to be the end of my career. … I was told I might have to retire – I thought I might,” Lawrence told the Ottawa Sportspage.

Nevertheless, the Grade 12 John McCrae Secondary School student was able to recover in time to qualify for this year’s national championships, but not without a lasting impact to his ankle. Some days he’s simply in too much pain to complete his floor routine, which he pointed to as one of the events he’s strongest in – its the floor and the rings that are his mainstays, he says.

He maintains that his goal at nationals is to crack the finals in his best events, but more than anything he says he’s looking forward to the opportunity to measure himself against the country’s best gymnasts. Some of his competition are former national medallists, while others have competed at the Olympics.

“It’s a little reality check,” Lawrence added.

One of those top gymnasts is Ottawa’s own Sam Zakutney. Lawrence said he and Zakutney trained together growing up, before Lawrence switched from the Ottawa Gymnastics Centre (OGC) to Rideau and Zakutney left OGC to study and compete at Penn State.

But there won’t be any animosity on the mats and Lawrence won’t be comparing himself against the All-American gymnast and Team Canada member, he said. If anything, watching his former teammate’s success motivates Lawrence.

“I’ve always looked up to Sam. He’s a very hard worker and he’s really passionate about the sport and a lot of my inspiration and ambition for gymnastics came from watching someone doing so well who was so close to me,” Lawrence said.

Zakutney and Lawrence will square off in the senior men’s division, while Rideau’s Aidan Li will compete in the junior division and Rideau’s Nathanael Teng will take part in the event’s open category.

OGC’s Jenna Lalonde will be Ottawa’s lone competitor on the women’s side. This year’s event should have been her second nationals, as she qualified for the 2018 national championships but had to withdraw because of an injury to her hamstring.

After being forced to withdraw from the 2018 Canadian Artistic Gymnastics Championships due to an injury, the Ottawa Gymnastics Centre’s Jenna Lalonde is set for her nationals debut at Carleton University. (Photo: Jeremy Soule)

Melanie Major, OGC’s women’s technical director and senior performance coach, played a part in making that decision.

Ultimately Major and Lalonde decided it was best for her not to compete at last year’s championships, to make sure that she wasn’t seriously injured.

“Jenna’s one of the most amazing human beings that I’ve ever met, so she took it like a champion,” Major said.

Lalonde went on to qualify for this year’s national championships by finishing 1st overall at February’s 2019 Elite Canada competition, in spite of a sprained ankle she suffered midway through the meet.

Lalonde, who is competing in the high performance category for novice athletes, won’t be short of support at Carleton, as Major says the club’s coaches have been encouraging their athletes to head to attend the event as spectators. Major says she’s bringing a group of her own athletes to watch on one of Lalonde’s competition days.

“It’s so they can get inspired by their talents and it pushes them to want to strive to be there,” Major said.

Finding Rhythm

The Markham-held 2019 Canadian Championships in Rhythmic Gymnastics preceded the artistic championships. Nine athletes from Ottawa competed in individual events at the championships, while one team, a junior group from the Ottawa Rhythmic Gymnastics Club, also competed. Kanata Rhythmic Gymnastics’ Cynthia Zhang competed at her fourth straight national championships. She finished 6th overall amongst junior girls. The 13-year-old said her placing this year is the best she’s ever finished. Next year will be her final year competing in the junior level.

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