Maleke Duncan-Reid, like many Canadian kids growing up, played sports.
However, the sport he selected was less than the norm. He chose gymnastics.
Duncan-Reid’s decision to pursue gymnastics turned out to be the right one. He found great success in it, getting to the world level as a member of Canada’s senior national team.
Before he went down the road to being a gymnast, though, Duncan-Reid needed to pick between that and another sport when he was first starting.
“I got into gymnastics at the age of nine,” he said. “Back then I was doing gymnastics and soccer at the same time but then I had to make a decision between gymnastics and soccer, so I picked the crazy sport – gymnastics.”
Choosing between the two was difficult because Duncan-Reid was a gifted athlete even at that age.
“I was good enough to do either or [gymnastics or soccer],” he said. “Both my parents were athletes and they were good at what they did so they transferred it onto me. Any sport I did I was good at.”
Ultimately, he chose gymnastics because it was unusual and harder than any other sport he tried.
“It wasn’t a very well known sport,” Duncan-Reid said. “You learn different things, there weren’t too many people in that sport, especially not a lot of men, and it seemed like more of a challenge to me than any other sport.
“People pick up a ball and play soccer, they pick up a bat and play baseball, they play hockey with a stick. These are sports that all kids do, but for gymnastics you have to actually have some talent. I mean real talent. Otherwise, you die.”
He laughed at that.
Talent was something the former national gymnast had in spades as evidenced by when he first began.
“I started with recreational gymnastics for a very short time,” Duncan-Reid said. “I was probably there for about four classes before I was shipped off to do competitive gymnastics.
“When I went into [the competitive program] I was basically auditioning to go into [a more advanced gym] and I was already flipping on the trampoline not knowing I was flipping and all the guys that were there before thought I was just some crazy kid playing on a trampoline.
“I had never bounced on a trampoline before that and the coach that was testing me out asked me if I knew what I was doing and I didn’t and then he told me that I was flipping and wanted to know who taught me how to flip and I said nobody because I didn’t even know I was flipping.
“From then, because I could flip naturally without even thinking, I knew that [gymnastics] could be something special, so I should pursue this.”
Duncan-Reid’s career on the world stage was successful mainly because he was always qualifying for individual medals after the all-around competition in his strongest events — floor, rings, vault and his personal favourite, high bar.
“I liked high bar the most because it was high flying and was a fun ride – even when you fell off the high bar,” he said.
His weakest event, pommel horse, was the absolute antithesis to fun for Duncan-Reid even though he is able to laugh about it now in retrospect.
“I’ve gotten one of the lowest scores on pommel horse, I think, ever,” he said. “I think I’ve gotten a four-something. You have to be a very special person to get a four.
“Pommel horse was one of those events that you had to be mentally tough for. You’re either on or you’re off and I had more offs than ons.”
Another downer on Duncan-Reid’s career was the many injuries he suffered and competed with — ailments that kept him out of some of the biggest competitions.
“I have not competed at the Pan American Games because I competed injured throughout most of my career,” he said. “All I had to do was finish nationals one year and I would have made Pan American Games but I hurt my finger and you need a finger to be doing the high bar.
“So that was the end of that dream of making the Pan American Games.”
Damage to his body also derailed his Olympic aspirations.
“I competed on many injuries,” Duncan-Reid said. “For three years straight I was competing on a few serious injuries and they take their toll.
“So I had to make a choice between either being able to function later on in life or going for that Olympic dream and functioning is what I picked.”
At the age of 19, Duncan-Reid retired because of how banged up he was. Gymnasts don’t have a very long career, but even in that world 19 is still considered a little premature.
Duncan-Reid walked away with no regrets though, happy with everything gymnastics has given him.
“From the experiences I’ve had from gymnastics I’ve learned a lot and I wouldn’t change a single thing — including not being able to make the Olympics,” he said. “What I can do with all I’ve learned is I can teach and I can also do some of the things I used to do.
“So I’m glad that I did it and I can transfer that knowledge to other people.”
Teaching has become a big part of Duncan-Reid’s current life.
The 30-year-old is a breakdancing instructor at Vibe Studios in Toronto and has been able to make a career out of it because of the skills he learned as a gymnast.
“Right out of gymnastics an opportunity presented itself with breakdancing that was pretty similar to gymnastics,” he said. “You use the same strengths from gymnastics to transfer over to breakdancing.”
Gymnastics is one of the hardest sports in the world, but Duncan-Reid owes almost everything in his life to it — his career, his friends and even the love of his life, his wife Heather, who is a circus performer.