In just a few days, 17 young gymnasts will begin training in the new elite program at the Rainy Lake Gymnastics Academy, a program specifically designed for those with proven ability and determination to excel in the sport.
The first class officially begins on September 11, marking a pioneering date for gymnastics in the district. Coaches and athletes alike have expressed excitement for the many changes to come.
Paiton Veldhuisen, 12, entering her 4th year of gymnastics, said she felt overwhelmed and excited when she found out she made the team. Winning first place in a competition held online around 2020, says she would love to compete again in the future and is confident that the elite program will propel her to her dreams.
“It was gonna be like a new chapter,” she said. “Opening up more doors and more opportunities in the future.”
Teagan deGroot, 12, entering her 4th year of gymnastics, says she jumped for joy during their camping trip when her mom told her she made the team.
“I just felt a bunch of mixed emotions like excited, nervous, overwhelmed, because I knew I would have to be busy, yet I was excited for this new opportunity. And I was just like, Yeah, I was just so happy. And I was just jumping around,” Teagan said.
Logann Veldhuisen, 7, entering her 3rd year of gymnastics and one of the youngest athletes in the program, said she found out she made the team when she was sitting by her driveway at home.
“My mom's like, ‘so look at this email your coach sent me.’ And I had no clue, it was long, she read it to me and at the very end it says, ‘Welcome to the competitive team.’ I was jumping around and I ran as quickly as I could to Paiton and gave her a really big hug,” Logann said.
The gymnasts describe the gym where they train as a second home. Until classes begin, they are stretching daily and practicing their walkovers.
Logann excitedly shared that she can almost do a backhand from the floor.
With confidence in their voice, they also gushed about the joy-giving feeling of doing stunts, and the movement and power felt when doing gymnastics.
“When I was really little, I just always loved tricks and stunting,” said Teagan. “And then when I heard there was a club in Fort Frances, I was just so happy… The minute I was doing it, I felt joy and love and it just made me feel so strong.”
Most of all, the girls are grateful for their coaches who have supported them and taught them many skills, ready to push themselves to bigger bounds.
Director and Head Coach Stephanie Mann said the academy quickly stepped up and formed the elite program after many athletes demonstrated a drive to join competitions.
“There were a lot of athletes that are looking for more of a push and they have that more competitive side,” she said. “That's when we decided, you know what, this is going to be it, we're gonna go with it.”
Compared to recreational classes which are held once a week, elite program athletes have three classes per week and a structured program that includes training for conditioning, flexibility and the artistic side of gymnastics.
“I think the athletes that are on the team are a pretty dedicated bunch. I've talked to them all myself and they all seem pretty happy and pretty keen to get to work,” Mann said.
The call for try-outs was released in early July then two sets of try-outs were held at the end of July and early August. To make the team selection as fair as possible, athletes were chosen based on a scoring method.
Originally, only 15 athletes were going to be chosen, but the open program accepted 17 people to accommodate for 2 who will move out of the community before Christmas. However, coach Mann said they typically will not accept extra athletes in the program.
In addition to Mann, the elite program coaches include Emily Reimer, Sara Moen and Stacey Cridland. Ray Abbott will also step in and help out as needed.
Beginning her own gymnastics career as a kid, spending up to 20 hours a week at the gym, Mann worked her way up to a coaching position and says she is motivated by her love for the sport.
“The gym always felt like a safe place for me to be,” she said. “I'm really happy with where we're headed this year. And I think we have a really great coaching staff to help us get the athletes a little farther along and really provide a positive, safe place for the kids to be.”
Whether they spend one hour or ten hours a week at the gym, all are an important part of the club, says Mann. “We wouldn't be there without them.”
To support athletes who may struggle to meet the program fees, which costs more than the recreational program, the coaches are looking to create a scholarship program that invites the community to sponsor an athlete’s competitive gymnastics training.
Mann said she wants to ensure that those in the elite program are there because they earned the spot, not just because they can financially afford it.
“We just want everybody to have a fair chance and not be worried that they can’t do it because [they don’t] have those fees available,” she said, adding that more information will be released soon.
Those who share an interest in coaching are welcome to reach out to the club, she says.
Mann also plans to complete a certification that allows her to evaluate coaches in the local gym, another advancement that will allow potential coaches to be certified locally rather than travelling out of town.
“That's a big step for our club as well. And we could even have coaches from around Northwestern Ontario come to our facility as well,” she said. “We're really expanding, we're growing, and we're really looking forward to what the year has in store for us.”
Elisa Nguyen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort Frances Times