By Dan Plouffe
She is the mother of rhythmic gymnastics in Ottawa. And when Dasa Lelli holds the arms of one of her athletes before they’re about to perform – like she has countless times over 40 years of coaching at the Kanata Rhythmic Gymnastics Club – it provides a sense of comfort that only a mother’s touch offers.
“It definitely helps me,” says KRSG provincial competitor Julia Yang. “Sometimes when you’re jumpy and all nervous, it’s good to have someone to keep you calm and remind you of what’s important and what you came to do.”
Having the support of a coach who’s been there for innumerable hours of training makes the connection that much stronger, adds the 15-year-old who started rhythmic gymnastics at age 4.
“I love working with Dasa. You can tell that she cares about all of us,” Yang indicates. “She always has something good to say. She doesn’t yell at us. She will work through stuff with us. She’s very supportive.”
Paula Preston has been a club volunteer for close to 20 years and has witnessed the special bond Lelli creates with her young athletes over and over again.
“They’re her daughters,” Preston underlines, noting Lelli raised three sons of her own, who now have three granddaughters and two grandsons. “All these generations of gymnasts, she feels like they’re hers.”
When Lelli speaks about what keeps her driven after 40 years of coaching, there’s an unmistakable motherly tone to her words.
“It’s the love of the sport,” she states simply. “I enjoy the challenge. And moulding the youngsters. It’s such a responsibility, and opportunity, not only to teach the sport, but really to touch the future in terms of values, sportsmanship, behaviour, organization skills for school.”
Lelli has guided dozens and dozens of provincial champions along the way, including 2014 World Championships competitor Lucinda Nowell, who is set to represent Canada in group rhythmic at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games and possibly the Olympics in the future.
“She’s brought up an awful lot of athletes, but she’s also brought up a lot of coaches as well,” notes Preston, highlighting the life skills required and gained by taking on such a role. “You see a generation of gymnasts she’s brought up to be strong, powerful, balanced young women, and now they bring their daughters back. That’s pretty amazing.”
U of O draws Czech to Ottawa
Lelli grew up in the Czech Republic in a family that believed strongly in the value of physical activity. She was drawn into modern gymnastics (later called rhythmic) like all the women in her town.
Lelli first came to Ottawa to visit her older brother, who’d emigrated when she was 4. She became a student in the University of Ottawa’s physical education program and did an internship at a downtown organization called the Ottawa Gym Club.
That was the start of rhythmic gymnastics’ introduction in Ottawa – only the second Canadian city, after Toronto, where it was practiced.
Ottawa Gym Club president Sandra McManus helped Lelli setup the club in 1975, and with the support of the City of Kanata, it later found its west-end home base at various community centres as well as John Young Elementary School.
“Slowly and patiently, it grew from a group of seven to over 400,” reflects Lelli, whose club was originally called Kanata Rhythmic Sportive Gymnastics (the word “sportive” was later dropped from the sport’s name, but the club continues to use KRSG as its acronym in recognition of its long history).
The technical and coaching aspect always came naturally to Lelli, but the most challenging part of building a club, she says, was understanding all the complex organizational components required.
KRSG has been blessed by a strong group of parents and committed long-term volunteers, like Preston, whose daughters (one of whom is now a top international wrestler) have been out of the club for a dozen years, Lelli notes.
“Our volunteers are second to none. They’re always here,” highlights Lelli, whose club was recently officially recognized by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport’s club excellence program. “It’s incredible that it’s 40 years, but it doesn’t feel that way.”
Kanata Cup hits 25 years
KRSG celebrated a double milestone this season. Along with its 40-year anniversary as a club, it was also the 25th-annual edition of the Kanata Cup.
Close to 200 athletes attended the March 10-11 invitational at Bridlewood Community Elementary School, taking part in provincial, interclub and Special Olympics divisions.
Like every competition, there were highs and lows for different athletes, Lelli indicates, but one gymnast in particular experienced both extremes to a whole new level.
The flu bug hit a few KRSG competitors before the event. After finishing her first routine, one of club’s top gymnasts was feeling ill to her stomach and ran off desperately for a visit with the garbage can.
“She came back and did the second routine,” Lelli recounts in amazement. “She overcomes that, and then comes back and does a third one. How’s that possible, somebody who is so determined that she can do that? Wow. That takes amazing strength and will. That is incredible.”
The Kanata Cup also featured a special performance from the group of almost 30 KRSG gymnasts who will take part in this summer’s World Gymnaestrada in Helsinki, a non-competitive event that celebrates all forms of gymnastics and brings together roughly 20,000 gymnasts from around the globe. It also provided a dress rehearsal of sorts for the competitive gymnasts whose provincial-level season kicks into high gear in the coming months.
“I enjoy it a lot because you just go and perform,” underlines Yang, who finished on the podium for all three of her apparatuses at her first provincial championships qualifier in Cambridge.
That was a big career highlight for Yang, but the accomplishment she’s most proud of would be music to Lelli’s ears.
“I think my biggest achievement is just how much I’ve improved over the years,” she smiles.