Apart now, together soon

Gymnasts Jaida Petersen-Brown, Ultimate Gymnastics head coach Cheronne Viljoen, Caroline DiFelice, Zara Reboks, Jessica Otto, Tiana Lombardo, Olivia Arena, Fiona Agostino, Emily Agostino, Olivia Agostino, Avery Martin, Poppy Henderson, Mia Caldwell, Amanda Mastrangelo, Sarah McChristie and Tiara Sutton take part in a recent online workout session.

What began as a way of staying in touch with Thunder Bay gymnasts during this isolation period has transformed into a countdown to their home base reopening.

Over the last two weeks, members of the Ultimate Gymnastics competitive team have been meeting with head coach Cheronne Viljoen through online videoconferencing to go over basic strength and core exercises together.

Viljoen hosts three weekly separate sessions with her 16-person squad split up into two groups.

“They’re kids. They could be sitting home eating chips instead of working out,” Viljoen said. “I try to do it with them all together because they’re a very close group of girls so it helps in this isolation period. They don’t spend time with they anymore and they used to live at each others’ houses. To have them train together helps them ease a little bit of that loneliness.”

It was refreshing for most, but also left some wanting more.

“I miss the equipment and learning new skills as well as my teammates and my coach,” said gymnast Olivia Agostino, who has been with Ultimate for eight years since the age of four.

Fortunes started to turn last Thursday. As the Ontario government announced an easing into the opening of certain facilities and parks amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Gymnastics Ontario gave the green light to its clubs to open its doors once again on May 29.

The three city-based groups —the Thunder Bay Gymnastics Association,

Giant Gymnastics and Ultimate Gymnastics — fall under the provincial umbrella.

Ultimate owner Greg Balec was given mandatory protocols from Gymnastics Ontario they must follow in order to run. Physical distancing will still be enforced (one gymnast per 144 square feet of training space) and government-approved hand washing stations must be set up.

Equipment will be sanitized and cleaned between sessions and at closing time. Staff on hand will need to be tested before entering the gym and a separate entrance and exit must be established to avoid close contact.

A key challenge for Viljoen and the fellow coaches is the implementing of hands free coaching (no spotting) until at least June 30.

“I was trying to think of another sport that does physical spotting the way I spot my kids and I couldn’t think of any other sport that is so hands-on from a coaching point of view as a gymnastics coach,” she said.

“So we have to come up with new, creative ideas to teach these kids and getting progression in their skills without me having to actually physically guide them through it.

“We have a small club. We don’t have the kind of facilities they have in Toronto and stuff like that. It really comes down to how much those kids trust me and I trust them,” Viljoen added.

“It will be interesting to see where we go from here.”

Even with the modified reopening ahead, Viljoen admitted it was unfortunate to see the plug pulled from the 2019-20 season in such sudden fashion. The month of March is usually the peak time for a club gymnasts as the provincials were just around the corner.

“This year we had an incredible amount of kids that qualified for championships,” Viljoen said. “Many of them which were going to retire after they were done championships and now this happens. This dream has gone out the window. It was devastating for the kids.”

Viljoen said working online with her students these past two weeks, she’s impressed by their level of passion.

“They’re even more motivated now to get back in the gym and start training (for 2021),” she said. “That says something about the kids’ dedication even at such a young age.”

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