The inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG) got underway this summer in Singapore, giving young athletes an opportunity to showcase their skills before the age of 16.
Katrina Cameron brought a bronze medal back to Canada, and thought the Games were a great way for her to get ready for what might lie ahead.
“The YOG were a good idea because it gave young athletes like myself an opportunity to show off our talent, and gave us a sense of accomplishment,” Cameron said. “It helped prepare us for bigger competitions in the future.”
Cameron was part of a team of four rhythmic gymnasts, who took the third spot in the group all-around competition. The team’s medal was the last of 12 that Canadian competitors achieved at the Games.
The YOG are for athletes aged 14 to 18, and saw over 3,000 participants in the program that is also set for the 2012 London Games.
The young athletes got a glimpse of what it might be like when and if they make it to the Olympics. The Youth Games allowed them to compete internationally and face a level of competition that might be indicative of the challenges they would have to cope with in London.
“I got to experience what it is like to have strong competitors competing against me and have high-level judges judging me,” 15-year-old Cameron said. “Also, I got to feel what it is like to be nervous, stressed and excited all at once. It was definitely a good experience and helped us to feel what the 2012 Olympics might be like.”
Tatsiana Kastsenkava, one of the rhythmic gymnasts’ two coaches, thought the inaugural event was a great opportunity for her team, and for the other athletes with whom they shared the experience.
“It was interesting to see how it could be different from the normal Olympics,” Kastsenkava said, after a practice at the University of Toronto. “I hope they are going to continue for all the sports and all the kids.
“It’s very good for improving at their level, and to help the kids start earlier. For some sports like ours, we finish at an early age, because of all the flexibility required. It’s very good for kids to have the experience of Olympic Games before the age of 16.”
YOG are to be held every four years, comparable to the Olympic Games, but will stagger summer and winter events. The idea was the brainchild of Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The inaugural Games took place from Aug. 14 to 26.
The team of four Toronto-area girls trained together for the event for over a year, practicing six times a week, up to four hours a day. And for Cameron’s teammate Anjelika Reznik, it was time well spent.
“Everything we worked for finally paid off,” 15-year-old Reznik said of the bronze medals that she and her team brought home from Singapore.
“We were representing Canada, and we were very proud. It was just a great feeling.”
Her identical twin and part of the team of four, Victoria, was also happy with the results of the competition, and the experience she had.
“The Youth Olympic Games were really special to me, since I got to go with my twin sister,” Victoria said. “It was a lot of fun, and I would do everything all over again.”
The gymnasts are currently spending their time training for their tryouts with the senior national team, and should they make the cut, they will prepare for the 2012 Olympics.
Cameron is proud of what she has already achieved, but knows that she has much more to look forward to.
“The bronze medal at the Youth Olympics has been my biggest accomplishment,” Cameron said, after a Saturday practice. “I’d really like to go to the Olympics though, the 2012 London Games.”
For the team of four, bringing home a medal in rhythmic gymnastics was important not only for the competition, but to help give more of a voice to their sport as well, and to raise awareness for the activity to which they devote their time and passion.
Ilinca Nita-Saguna, the program manager for rhythmics at Gymnastics Ontario, thinks that more people should know what the sport is about, and what athletes have learned from it.
“Rhythmic gymnastics is one of the most beautiful sports teaching one the balance between coordination, grace and strength,” Nita-Saguna said. “And training at the national level in such a sport has taught the athletes about work ethic, discipline, goal-setting, teamwork, and leadership.
“These are wonderful skills the gymnasts will have with them long after their competitive careers.”
Melodie Omidi, the fourth and youngest member of the team at 14, describes rhythmic gymnastics as “a unique sport. It is elegance, strength, and flexibility.
“And, you have to handle apparatus.”
The junior team competed with two routines in Singapore, one using ribbons and the other with hoops. Though Omidi is taking a break from the sport to concentrate on her studies, she felt that she had the experience of a lifetime in August.
“Youth Olympic Games meant a lot to me because we’ve been training for so many years, and that was what we wanted to achieve,” Omidi said of obtaining a medal. “We did well, and it was like my whole life was put into that.”
Coach Kastsenkava is proud of the performance that her girls gave at the first-ever Games, but knows that they will have to put in a lot more hard work to get to the next stage of competition.
“They’re going to a different level right now,” Kastsenkava said. “They were junior, and now they are moving to senior. It’s a lot harder, but I hope they will be able to get to the 2012 Olympic Games in the group routine.”
The team has meant a lot to their coach, and she considers them to be extraordinary young women.
“Everything is special to me about them,” the coach said of her team. “They are my babies. I think they spend more time with me than even their parents.”
That fact has been especially true of the girls for one month each summer, when they travel with their coaches to a gym in Spain for more intense training.
“It’s like a camp in Spain for one month,” Kastsenkava said. “24/7, every day I am with them. And they spend five or six hours in the gym every single day.”
Training to get to the Olympics can be a rough path, and the girls might be missing out on what some others consider to be a normal childhood.
“I do miss out on a lot of things that normal teenagers get to do,” Cameron said. “But I manage to make time to hang out with my friends.”
The Mississauga native thinks that the amount of time and effort she puts into her craft is advantageous to her in other areas of her life.
“I get to travel a lot more than some teenagers ever will in their lifetimes,” Cameron said. “Also, I get to miss a lot of school because of all the traveling I am doing for gymnastics.”
Victoria thinks that her rigorous training schedule has taken away from her chance at living the life of a normal teen, and always keeps her sport in the back of her mind.
“I can’t hang out with my friends as much as I want when I’m training,” Victoria said. “And I can’t really participate in any team sports because they will involve me missing training, and I could get injured.”
The 15-year-old also thinks her sport has put a barrier on the enjoyment in her life.
“My life is different from a normal teenage girl in that I think I have a limit on fun,” Victoria said. “Anything could affect my performance on the carpet.”
The bronze medallists will continue to train and prepare in hopes of attending the upcoming Summer Games.
Gymnastics Ontario would like to thank the University of Toronto and Quest for Gold for all of their support.
They are very proud of all their group members, and would also like to thank the coaches, volunteers and parents who have played a role in their achievement.