By Dan Plouffe
In a short period of barely a week at the Pan Am Games, Lucinda Nowell relived a rollercoaster experience that mirrored her journey to reach TO2015, but unlike a rollercoaster, the 18-year-old rhythmic gymnast’s ride ended on a peak with an indelible career highlight.
Much like when she was first invited to join Canada’s national group rhythmic gymnastics team, Nowell’s Pan Am adventure began with a ton of excitement at the Opening Ceremonies. But the next day, she was in a doctor’s office getting treated for a case of bronchitis just before the start of the long-awaited competition she’d been preparing for at the epicentre of the Games in Toronto.
Nowell was feeling a bit better come her team’s first performance, but their debut in the 5 ribbons portion of the all-around competition was spoiled when one of the ribbons got tied in a knot, which left them in last place.
There was some panic and disappointment at the time, but the Kanata Rhythmic Gymnastics Club-brewed athlete vowed that they’d recover and “come back stronger.”
Two days later in the 5 ribbons event final, the Canadian team got through the part of their routine that caused the problem and rode a solid performance through to a bronze medal win.
“Our first day didn’t go so good,” reflects Nowell, who shared a sense of relief when the troublesome portion of the routine passed without incident, along with a nervous red-and-white audience.
“The crowd seemed to know the point where our mistake happened and they just went crazy,” recounted the former Earl of March Secondary School student. “We could barely hear our music. It was really exciting. I’ve never experienced anything like that before.”
Nowell and her teammates hadn’t anticipated the support they’d receive at the Toronto Coliseum, thinking that rhythmic gymnastics wasn’t as popular in Canada as it is elsewhere such as Eastern Europe. But instead, there wasn’t a ticket available at the Toronto Marlies’ stadium, and fans lined the barricades to give them a high-fives as they exited with their bronze medals – which they wound up getting to do on back-to-back days thanks to a repeat bronze in the 6 clubs, 2 hoops event final.
“It’s such a great feeling to come off, see our coaches smiling and wanting to hug us, and just making them proud, because they work so hard for us,” highlights Nowell, who had a number of supporters from her home KRSG club in the stands in Toronto. “And to have our family and friends here, they do so much for us. It’s sort of like a chance to thank them.”
As devoted as Nowell was to put in the training needed to reach the international stage, it required matching dedication for her family. After spending the bulk of her formative years at Bridlewood Community Elementary School in Kanata South and becoming a provincial champion, Nowell required more practice time when she began competing at the national level. That meant car trips at least three times a week to Montreal for training with Rhythmik Quebec.
Then once she joined the Toronto-based national group team, Nowell and her mother had to move away from their Kanata home into an apartment in the Leaside community.
And like the first few days of the Pan Ams, it was a fairly rocky road initially. On top of the challenge of moving away before her high school senior year, the only other non-Toronto member of the group left the program, and the team’s routines were not being well-received in competition.
But Nowell kept at it persistently, and her fortunes began to turn around towards the end of last season. The University of Toronto student helped Canada to a crucial top-24 finish at the 2014 World Championships to secure a position in the 2015 worlds from Sept. 7-13 in Germany, where they could earn a Rio 2016 Olympic berth by jumping from last year’s 21st-place spot into the top-10 (or 16 to get a chance at the final qualifier).
And then came the Pan Am Games – the big moment where a pair of shiny medals made the sacrifices worthwhile.
“This is nothing I expected, but it’s something I dreamed of and hoped for. It’s just incredible that it really happened,” Nowell smiles. “It’s so many hours, it’s so much repetition, the brainpower, and the will to do it. I don’t even know how to describe the feeling. I’m just so happy and so proud.”