By Dan Plouffe
Ottawa will welcome around 1,000 athletes for the return of the Ontario artistic gymnastics championships today through Sunday at the EY Centre, and the young athletes are bursting with anticipation for the opportunity to get back into competition atmosphere.
“There’s just something special about it,” explains Grade 6 Jonathan-Pitre elementary school student Addison Graham, a member of the host Ottawa Gymnastics Centre club. “You get a lot of butterflies. It can be really nerve wracking, but also, it’s really exciting. I really like performing and showing my skills that I’ve been working on.
“It was hard for me (not having competitions during COVID). Especially in quarantine, it was really hard to like, just stay at home and do nothing. But I’m really excited for provincials now, especially since it’s in my hometown and a lot of people will be coming to watch.”
OGC women’s head coach Amanda Pepin has been exceptionally impressed with the resilience her young athletes displayed in the face of lockdowns, working out at home, constant stops/starts and changes through the 2+ years of COVID that wiped out the 2020 and 2021 provincials.
“In all honesty, I probably learned a little bit more from them about how to keep pushing through and keep going. It was pretty impressive,” indicates Pepin, whose club will have 28 athletes competing across the wide range of divisions organized by gender, ability level and age.
“But a big part of this sport is resilience,” she underlines. “It’s not an easy sport. It’s a tough sport physically and mentally. Competition is tough. It’s an individual sport where you perform in front of people and judges. You have to learn to build some resilience over that.”
There’s no question COVID took its toll on skill development, highlights OGC’s Elliot Choi, but friends and teammates helped keep each other’s spirits and motivation up.
“It’s not fun to relearn a bunch of stuff. You’d rather keep going up, instead of up, down, up, down,” notes the Grade 9 Lisgar Collegiate Institute student who’s eager to show off the new skills he’s acquired since his family and friends last saw him compete.
“It’ll be pretty special to show them what I can do in person, and it’ll be great to have them there without having to travel for hours, and feel that extra bit of hometown love.”
Pepin initially told her athletes that it would be very hard to move up to new levels given the frequent closures of their Westboro facility, and to temper their expectations.
“But we still had kids move up to the next level, which really shows all the work they put in off-site,” signals Pepin, whose club did online conditioning and mental performance work while apart. “Just the fact that they’re even competing is (worth celebrating).”
Omicron nearly cancelled the competitive gymnastics season for a third year in a row, but just as decision deadlines loomed, restrictions started to ease, and OGC was able to host a small provincials qualification meet at the end of February.
“I feel like I can finally breathe and think more about the future now,” rather than responding to the latest crisis, Pepin adds. “Everything’s kind of been week-to-week or day-to-day, so it feels a little more normal, I guess.”
Over 150 volunteers will help run the provincials show (after getting warmed up last weekend with OGC’s 250-athlete Tulip Classic meet). The men’s and women’s schedules feature four daily competition sessions in two gyms, from as early as 8:30 a.m. and as late as 7:30 p.m. The top men’s divisions run Friday from 3:50-7:30 p.m., and the top women compete from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday and 8:30 a.m.-noon Saturday.
Some of the most advanced gymnasts will compete at the Canadian Championships the following weekend in Richmond, B.C. (on the heels of the rhythmic gymnastics nationals at the same site).
It’s the first provincials in town since the Nepean-Corona School of Gymnastics hosted the event at the exhibition centre near the airport in 2012 (though Ottawa has hosted several nationals in between).
In recent pre-COVID years, provincials would have drawn several hundred more entrants, with men’s participation particularly impacted, down 40% in registered athletes across Ontario.
“I know there are some clubs in the province that maybe don’t have competitive anymore, or had to close a certain type of program, or aren’t continuing at all, and you know, it breaks my heart, because I love this sport so much,” Pepin highlights. “But I’m really proud of how everyone’s worked to have this opportunity. Not just at our club – all the clubs are putting in their best effort.
“And there is still a lot of positivity when you go to competitions. It’s been two years since we’ve seen people, right? So it’s great to see everyone and get those communications back and build those friendships again.”
First provincials since death of influential Ontario gymnastics builder Kellie Hinnells
It will be strange and sad to be at a championships meet and not have Kellie Hinnells there helping out behind the scenes, Pepin says.
Hinnells, who served as OGC’s executive director from around 2010-2015, died on April 16 from cancer at age 56.
“She was always that one person, when you see her, you’re like, ‘I gotta go talk to her!’” reflects Pepin. “That smile, and that ease of conversation that you have with her. She always wanted to go and talk to everybody everywhere and find out how they’re doing.”
Hinnells had an unbelievable knack for remembering the finer points of event management, Pepin recalls, though it was her ability to always make others feel special and appreciated for their efforts that stood out.
“She was an absolute joy to work with. She was such a lovely person, clearly cared about the athletes and everyone involved – a very giving and selfless person,” Pepin says of Hinnells, who occupied many leadership roles in gymnastics throughout the province, including the conclusion of her career in Kitchener-Waterloo, where she’d moved after discovering she had an older sister who’d been put up for adoption as a child.
Having big championships come to Ottawa regularly is part of the legacy Hinnells will leave. She was a rallying force and tireless worker behind the scenes of countless meets, including a nationals that brought together the men’s and women’s artistic, rhythmic gymnastics and trampoline disciplines at Carleton University.
“She said, ‘Why not? Why can’t we have these events here? Ottawa’s such a beautiful, beautiful town and has so much to offer. And there’s lots of event venues here that can meet those needs,” Pepin recounts.
“I’m sure there’ll be a moment this weekend where we’ll go, ‘Ah gee, Kellie would have remembered this or that,’” she adds. “It might take awhile still to appreciate the full impact she’s had, but she basically dedicated her whole life to the sport of gymnastics. It’s pretty impressive.”
Look for more coverage of the Ontario Artistic Gymnastics Championships here on OttawaSportsPages.ca after the event.
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