Gymnasts get shot at freestyle skiing 

Pilot program modelled on success of Chinese and Australian teams

A group of B.C.’s top former gymnasts, including Rikka Tindle, was given an opportunity to try their hand at freestyle skiing last week as part of a new pilot program to develop future Olympians.

The group of girls included Tindle (16), Megan Drown (17), Brittany Hawkins (16) and Alysia Simon (13). They spent two days with a freestyle aerials coach, including a day on the glacier on Blackcomb Mountain and a day on the water ramp at Base II.

The program is a first for Canada, although several former gymnasts have gone into the sport of freestyle skiing on their own steam. The Chinese and Australian teams are already actively recruiting new skiers from gymnastics programs with incredible success, and the Canadian freestyle team has been looking to establish itself as a "soft landing place" for retiring gymnasts.

The reason is that high-performance gymnasts are already proficient with flips and spins, have excellent fitness and body awareness, and are used to working with coaches to develop new skills.

"Despite limited or non-existent skiing experience, there was definitely excitement among these former gymnasts in trying a new sport," said Gord Hopper, the higher performance director of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Team.

Hopper is himself a former gymnast and a former technical director for Gymnastics B.C.

He says it is not the freestyle team’s goal to steal athletes from gymnastics, but to give gymnasts who are retired or can no longer compete for various reasons an opportunity to stay active in high performance sports. All four girls taking part in the pilot program are no longer in competitions.

Todd Allison, a former member of the freestyle team and the current manager of the Telus Whistler Sports Centre, says the Canadian and B.C. freestyle associations are finalizing the details on an Acrobat to Aerial program.

"Being able to flip and twist is a critical component for an aerialist," added Allison, who helped to co-ordinate the program through the TWSC. "The challenge for these teens was to see if they could do it on skis.

"In addition, they are usually determined, easily coached and are still looking for the opportunity to compete. This approach has been used very successfully in Australia, and in fact produced the 2002 Olympic Champion (Alisa Camplin)."

According to Mark Schuett, a former coach for both the Canadian and U.S. aerials teams, the girls did well despite their lack of experience.

"These girls were great," he said. "With their existing talent and some coaching, 2010 is a definite possibility."

The best measure of success came from the participants, all of whom said they would like to come back and try again.

Tindle had competed at the national level and was ranked as a top prospect for the national team when she was sidelined almost two years ago with elbow injuries. She had three surgeries on her elbows to repair the damage, and has since moved into coaching.

"It was really unfortunate because I was hoping to be in the Olympics this year, but that’s not going to happen," said Tindle. "I really miss it a lot, so I’m thinking of getting into it again, but I’ll have to see if my elbows can take it."

Hopper hopes to run another camp in August, and all four girls said they would like to be invited back to the pilot program.

"I had a lot of fun actually – I think it was the first time I’ve been skiing in around 10 years," said Tindle, who grew in Whistler and moved to West Vancouver to be closer to the gymnastics clubs she trains and coaches for. She coached a summer camp with Whistler Gymnastics recently, and hopes to be back again for another camp in August.

Her first experience with the water ramp didn’t go very well, but she is confident that she will be able to do it once she gets the hang of wearing skis again.

With the help of the national freestyle team, she’ll get that chance.

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