By Dan Plouffe
Five athletes from the Kanata Rhythmic Gymnastics Club are set to make their triumphant return to the national stage for the first Canadian Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships since 2019 in Richmond, B.C.
Keira Agnew, Maria Sokolova, Serena Nie, Selena Pang and Cynthia Zhang will at last get to show off all the training they’ve done in their basements and backyards through COVID.
That work hasn’t always been pretty. Nie was skipping in her unfinished basement when she caught a lightbulb with her rope.
“It kind of shattered – everywhere,” reports the Grade 10 Earl of March Secondary School student, who was unhurt, but was left with a big cleanup. “It was still bright outside, so I could at least see OK even without the light.”
Basements and livingrooms aren’t exactly the ideal place to practice tossing balls, hoops and clubs high into the air, so the gymnasts took the show outdoors whenever the weather allowed.
“It’s not perfect outside – there’s bound to be some wind, or too much sun,” notes Pang. “I was throwing my ribbon in my backyard and it got stuck in the tree. My dad had to get a ladder and climb up to get it out. That was very interesting.”
Rhythmic gymnastics was certainly among the sports hit hardest by the pandemic, and the Kanata club in particular. There were periods where activity was permitted, but KRSG could not rent the school gyms it relies upon to run programs.
“I think that was the biggest challenge. We completely shifted online, so it was very difficult,” signals KRSG head coach Yuliana Korolyova, whose son was born the day before the province shut down in 2020.
“I was worried it would be hard to keep (the athletes) motivated,” she adds. “But they didn’t stop, they didn’t feel down, they just kept working towards their passion.”
Though apparatus throws were tough to do at home, the gymnasts could work on their conditioning and flexibility. They connected with sport experts online, which wouldn’t have likely occurred otherwise if not for the virtual shift.
“It was always, ‘OK, what can we do to make it work?'” Korolyova recounts. “I mean, everybody’s in it. What can I do to make the best out of it?”
KRSG competitive athletes were eventually able to access the gym at the Kanata Montessori private school, though that was on and off alongside changing health measures. The club was finally able to return to its main site at Bridlewood Elementary about a month ago, and will get to host an open house/year-end show on June 18.
The first in-person meet in over two years was a big one – April’s Eastern Regionals in Markham served as the final qualification opportunity for nationals.
Zhang and Pang had already booked their ticket to the Canadians with respective fifth- and sixth-place finishes in the senior high-performance class at the virtual Elite Canada competition (where athletes submitted videos of their performances).
Keira Agnew (fifth, junior), Maria Sokolova (sixth, junior) and Serena Nie (second, senior) earned their spot at nationals thanks to their performances at the regionals. Pang came third and Zhang fourth in senior HP at the event, while Stella Li earned the Ottawa Rhythmic Gymnastics Club’s top placing (ninth, junior).
“I’m just happy that we have qualified. To have five who are going to nationals is huge,” underlines Korolyova, who drove past the artistic gymnastics provincials at the EY Centre on their way to the airport Thursday (the artistic nationals will held after rhythmic is done at the Richmond Olympic Oval).
“It’s amazing all the effort the girls have put in, and the coaches, the parents, and everyone involved in the club,” adds Korolyova. “They’re troopers. They made it.”
Gymnast uses COVID emotions to inspire competition routines
Asked what they enjoyed about their sport, all five nationals-bound KRSG gymnasts answered “competitions.”
“It’s really great how you can show what you worked on throughout the year,” explains Agnew, a Grade 9 Paul-Desmarais high school student. “And I really enjoy traveling and competing and being rewarded for your efforts.”
Zhang says it was “really discouraging” to miss out on competitions for so long, and it was doubly difficult to be away from teammates who they’d usually be with for over 20 hours of training each week.
“Although we weren’t able to be in the gym as much, and we had a lot of opportunities taken away from us, I’d say we’ve found a lot more new places where we can expand our horizons, so it’s been a bit of a benefit,” counters the Grade 11 Merivale High School student. “(Nationals) is a great opportunity to showcase the skills and every single new little thing that we’ve learned during COVID.”
Zhang wants her routines to have a very distinct style that tells a story – one aspect she could work to develop while away from the gym.
“A lot of my routines are, I wouldn’t say sad, but I think it’s more or less just a way of expressing all the feelings that maybe have been built up during COVID,” highlights Zhang, who competed for Team Canada in Europe on several occasions before the pandemic. “The character in my routine is telling the judges that I’m here, and I can get through it.”
The athletes say they’re also looking forward to reuniting with competitors/friends from other parts of the country, not to mention performing at a venue free of trees and low-hanging lightbulbs.
“It’s the feeling that every gymnast has missed – having in-person competitions,” indicates Pang, who had nationals in Gatineau and travel to Greece and Spain nixed in 2020. “It’s been a hard fight, but we’re all going to be there. It’s very exciting.”
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