By Charlie Pinkerton
The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for everyone, but the last two years have had to have been a special kind of frustrating for someone like Jenna Lalonde.
The gymnast had a lot to be excited about at the start of 2020 — the Ottawa Gymnastics Centre (OGC) product had qualified in back-to-back years for her age group’s national gymnastics championships, and, at 13-years-old, she was on the cusp of entering the athletic prime for her sport.
Then COVID-19 swept across the globe, and none of that seemed to matter. Gyms closed and Lalonde’s 2020 season was cancelled.
“We were all just kind of on our own,” Lalonde, now 15, told the Sports Pages recently when recalling how it felt as a high-level athlete during the early days of the pandemic.
When the first lockdown began, Lalonde had also just broken her hand. This made it very difficult for her to train — which, at the time, essentially meant keeping up her conditioning in lieu of being able to improve her skills.
“I couldn’t do very much … and at that time it was quite hard because no one had discovered Zoom workouts or anything,” Lalonde said.
Eventually virtual training became more popular and, once the weather got warmer, Lalonde could train outside. Gyms opened, then closed, then opened and closed again, and at one point during the fall of 2020, while Lalonde was training at her gym, she fell on the trampoline and broke her nose.
During the lockdown last winter, Lalonde was given an exemption as a high-level athlete that allowed her to do in-gym training when others couldn’t.
This allowed Lalonde to return to regular training with Melanie Major, who’s coached Lalonde since she was a young girl.
“I felt really privileged to have (an exemption),” Lalonde said. “But I felt bad for everyone else who couldn’t (train) and I was trying to make sure I could do my best because I knew it was a special experience and not everyone got to have it.”
Her first major competition since the pandemic started was this year’s national championships in May. The event was held virtually, meaning that gymnasts pre-recorded routines at their own clubs while an official was present. Lalonde came 4th overall in Canada among junior women’s gymnasts, as well as 2nd on the balance beam.
In November, Lalonde travelled to France and Beligum as part of Canada’s junior national team for her first international competition since the pandemic started. At the latter of the two meets, which was the Belgium event, she posted career-best scores overall and on the vault.
While Lalonde is looking forward to returning to more normal training and competitions, she does see a silver lining in her experiences during the pandemic.
“Even if I have a hard practice and some days I just don’t feel like going to the gym, I feel like the lockdowns showed me how much I miss it and how much I want to be at the gym doing what I do every day,” she said.
With her 16th birthday just months away, Lalonde was recently invited to join Canada’s senior national team, which she could begin training with next month — unless, as she’s well aware, the pandemic throws her for another loop.
The OGC’s James Doucette, 19, won an all-around gold medal in the men’s open category of the men’s virtual national gymnastics championships. He was also 1st in the pommel horse and vault. He was 5th in floor, 6th in rings, and 4th in parallel bars. Men’s gymnasts were supervised by officials while they filmed routines in their home gyms in November and submitted them to the competition that was judged in early December.
Last month, one local tumbler, Philo Malek of Rideau Gymnastics, competed where few (and possibly zero) Ottawa gymnasts have before him. Malek, 18, flew to Baku, Azerbaijan, which is immediately north of Iran, to compete at the 2021 World Age Group Trampoline Gymnastics Championships. He placed 17th out of 25 men at the event. Malek told CTV News before the event that his trip to Azerbaijan was going to be the first time he competed internationally.
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