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Rebuilding year for local gymnastics clubs

Local athletes happy to return to competition after pandemic caused two-year hiatus

Emily Fleming has spent three days a week for the last decade working hard to master the difficult sport of gymnastics.

The 18-year-old traded many sleepovers, school events and other activities for physical conditioning, bars, beams, vaults and floor routines.

She was happy to make those sacrifices.

“The gym is my favourite place and a place I could always just be myself,” Fleming said. “Gymnastics has shown me the value of hard work and has taught me to always get back up no matter how many times I fall.”

Fleming, who attended her final competition this spring, started recreational gymnastics at the Sault Ste. Marie YMCA at age five. She joined the Sault YMCA Gymnastics competitive team at age eight.

She was part of a group of girls who would train hard and travel to four or five competitions per year – until COVID lockdowns hit.

Several of Fleming’s teammates – like many other competitive athletes – left the sport after shutdowns began to impact training.

“It was hard because we would go into shutdowns and I wouldn’t be able to practice for months,” Fleming said. The team would get back in the gym and by the time they were back in shape, the gym would close for another lockdown.

“It was definitely hard to get back into the routines.”

Fleming persevered.

“I didn’t want to end off gymnastics on half a year and not be able to compete in my new routines,” she said.

Sault YMCA Gymnastics Head Coach Danielle Lukenda said the pandemic was a challenge for the program, which relies on fundraising and volunteerism. The coaching staff diminished by three. Many athletes fell away from the sport.

“It was quite challenging as it has been in every sport, I suspect,” said Lukenda, a former gymnast who has been a volunteer coach for over 20 years. “Children have found new hobbies; older athletes have found employment to fill their time; families have rediscovered sharing more time together. These are not negative things, just changes.”

The changes meant this year the team, which has been a part of the Sault Ste. Marie YMCA for 40 years, was made up of athletes like Fleming who stuck it out, as well as some new faces. The team was finally able to start competing again this year.

“You know that feeling when you are travelling, then you return home… It was like that,” said Lukenda of returning to competitions. “Relief, happiness for the athletes, pure joy. We were back home, all together.”

Fleming was happy she was able to end her final season as a competitive gymnast on a high note – attending three competitions with her teammate Keira Lamming. In her final competition at Futures Gymnastics in Mississauga earlier this spring, Fleming placed in the top 10 all-around in Level six (Age 15+).

Younger members of the team had top three finishes – including nine-year-old Penelope Phillips who earned first place in all her events and all-around in Level one (Age nine – 11).

Now that the team is back to competing again, Lukenda said the focus will be on growth and continuing to provide young girls an opportunity to explore the sport. She is also recruiting volunteer coaches. Fleming plans to return to the club next year as a coach.

This has also been a year of rebuilding for the Sault Ste. Marie Gymnastics Club, which trains at the John Rhodes Community Centre.

Head Coach Kim O’Brien said the club normally has about 60 competitive athletes, but this year they were down to about 35 after the January 2022 lockdown.

Before the pandemic, O’Brien said the team had several higher-level athletes, but it became difficult to train with the repeated lockdowns. They tried online training, and outdoor activities, but nothing compares to being in the gym.

“It’s a hard sport,” she said. “You need to be in the gym in order to train.

“It was hard to keep them interested, not knowing if they could attend competitions,” O’Brien said. “We had to be quite creative to keep these kids focused.”

They were able to return – with the club’s national group attending competitions in Michigan and the inter-club competitors attending a competition in Belleville earlier this spring.

O’Brien said the team had several athletes finish in the top three all around. A few athletes also won championships in some events.

“The majority of them came home with something,” O’Brien said. “That was just an added bonus.”

Really it was about getting that feeling of being back in competition, she said.

O’Brien is hoping the team is back in full force next year, and ready to start competing again in December.

Sault Ste. Marie Gymnastics Club typically holds tryouts at the end of May. Anyone interested in setting up an appointment can call the club at 705-254-2259. The club also has a variety of recreational programs and day camps at the John Rhodes to offer those interested in the sport.

“A lot of my recruiting I do within the recreational program,” O’Brien said.

Sault YMCA Gymnastics holds its competitive team assessments in the summer. The YMCA also has a recreational gymnastics program, day camps and several other programs for young people. For more information, contact Sault Ste. Marie YMCA Membership Services at 705-949-3133.