|Jennifer Wood, 1991 Elite Canada|
Photo by Grace Chiu
When Calgary's Jennifer Wood began gymnastics, she never dreamed she'd become Alberta's first female gymnast to compete at an Olympic Games. In this Gymn.ca exclusive interview, Wood takes us through her gymnastics career, starting with her early years at Altadore gymnastics through to her NCAA achievements. Wood is now the Women’s Program Coordinator at Alberta Gymnastics, staying close to the sport she loves.
Wood's competitive history:
1988 Canadian Nationals: 4th T, 14th AA
1989 Canadian Nationals: 11th AA
1990 Canadian Nationals: 5th AA, 1st V
1990 Romanian International: 6th AA, 3rd FX
1991 Pan Am Games: 3rd T, 3rd V
1991 Elite Canada: 8th AA
1992 Canadian Olympic Trials: 4th AA
1992 World Championships: 37th V, 47th FX
1992 Olympic Games: 10th T
Gymn.ca: How did you get started in gymnastics?
Wood: I started at age three at the Altadore Gymnastics Club in Calgary and I finished my Canadian career there in 1992 after training at that club for 17 years. My sister Caroline Wood was also in gymnastics so it was just natural for me to start as well, although I also was involved in soccer and ringette in the early years until I decided to concentrate solely on gymnastics.
Gymn.ca: You traveled abroad several times in your career. Can you describe some
of these experiences?
Wood: One of the most memorable experiences for me as far as traveling internationally was when I went to the 1990 Romanian Invitational in Ploesti. It was my first official national team assignment and I traveled with Sue Harris (judge) and Kerri Kanuka (athlete) as well as my coach Dave Holmes. It wasn't the gymnastics competition that made it so memorable, it was the fact that the country had just been through a revolution and had overthrown the government. We were able to do some sightseeing in Bucharest before we left and we toured all the palaces and lavish homes that the dictator at the time owned. There were still abandoned tanks on the streets and bullet holes in the building. There is also a red line on the street signifying the date and place the revolution began (were the first) rally took place. There were make-shift memorials all over the city where you would see grieving mothers laying down flowers or cleaning their children's grave stones. It was so memorable because it reminded me of how lucky I am to live in Canada and have the freedoms that we have and some times take for granted. I was also able to go back to Romania the following year to see the small changes that were happening, more colours, happier people on the streets, etc.
It was also memorable for me on the gymnastics side of things. I made all 4 event finals and received a bronze medal on floor in a competition that included the 1989 World Floor champion [bronze] (Cristina Bontas, ROM). Doing so well so far away from home and in my first international competition gave me a lot of confidence to believe in myself and know that I had what it takes to succeed under international pressures.
Gymn.ca: You graduated from high school in 1990 and could have gone on to compete
NCAA, but instead decided to postpone NCAA for a chance to compete at the 1992 Olympics. During these two years, did you ever doubt your decision?
Wood: No I never doubted my decision, I was getting better and better with ever competition and although I twice missed the World Championship teams by the slimmest of margins (.1 in 1989 & 1991) I just seemed to believe that I had to at least try! I am also a pretty determined person and I had a lot of people on my side within the gymnastics community who believed in me and that just kept me going. When you surround yourself with people who believe in you, you feel like you can do anything!
Gymn.ca: What was it like to compete at the 1992 Olympic trials?
Wood: The 1992 Olympic Trials were actually quite fun for me. It might sound strange but it was like I was in a zone, I was just soaking up every little bit of the competition and had a great time. The crowd was great (the entire Alberta Team was always there and cheering loud, and all the National Team athletes seemed to be cheering for one another). There were just good vibes everywhere!
For the competition I was lucky to have Lori Strong, Stella Umeh, and Mylene Fleury in my same rotation group. Mylene and I had become good friends having competed internationally together a few times, as well our coaches were good friends. Since we had both been left off the 1991 Worlds team and went to Pan Ams in Cuba instead, we both felt it was our time this go-round. Stella and I had become good friends as well through all the training camps we had leading up to the trials, as well I received a lot of support from her mom and dad (great people!).
Gymn.ca: Can you describe your Olympic experience?
Wood: We trained and went through the Canadian Olympic Staging process in Toronto for a week before we went to Spain. We stayed in the Olympic Village from day one and we were the first group of athletes to arrive and make ourselves at home. We were there for about a week before the Opening Ceremonies, so we were able to check everything out before the majority of the athletes arrived . In the beginning we did not spend a lot of time talking with athletes from other countries as we were all concentrating on the competition ahead and training. There were a few Canadian team functions where we were able to meet and chat with other athletes, mission staff, etc.
We were not able to go to the Opening Ceremonies because we had to compete the next day and they could not guarantee our coaches that we could get back before midnight, so the coaches decided we should not go. They alternate the schedule every year as far as who competes first (women or men) and that year we got the short end of the stick! It is the one and only thing I regret about my Olympic experience, not being able to march out behind your flag.
The Olympic Village was a compound of apartments, all with different layouts. We were one of the luckiest groups in the village as we had a section of grass and trees in front of our building where we could hang out and play Frisbee and hacky sack and meet other athletes. We were also close to the “Olympic Beach” so we had a nice breeze off the Mediterranean. There was no glass in windows, just shutters, and we didn’t have air conditioning so we where quite lucky to have a little bit of a breeze. The Olympic Beach was a private beach front area within the Village boundaries.
We had podium training twice before the competition, so we could get used to the layout of the competition arena, etc. For me the competition was over after the third day of the Olympics - I made some mistakes in compulsories so I was not able to move on. As a team we were quite pleased with our result however, we ended up in 10th place even though we started the competition ranked 12th from 1991 Worlds. It was also quite an accomplishment for us to move up since Janet Morin injured herself in warm-up right before the team optionals competition (she twisted her ankle on her last beam dismount right before we marched out to start on beam) and Mylene Fleury had been competing both compulsories and optionals on a sprained ankle. They would give her shots before and after each competition to keep her foot numb! Ken Read was our Chef de Mission that year and he came to watch us compete. He told us after that he felt we showed the true Olympic Spirit in the way that we were all cheering for each other and helping each other throughout the competition knowing that we had to count all scores and could not afford any mistakes.
After we were done competing we were lucky enough to get to stay in the village for the remainder of the Olympics. Some teams, like the Americans, had to leave so that a new wave of athletes could come in for the second week of competition.
I also celebrated my 20th birthday in Barcelona. The whole team went with me to the Birthday Party Room where they would present a cake to each athlete that celebrated their b-day during the Olympics. The only catch was that you had to sing “Karaoke” before you could get your cake but I made the whole team go up and sing with me!
After we were all done competing we were able to do more things on our own and with our families. Some of us went up the coast to visit some smaller coastal towns on day trips and some of us went to watch other events. There were not a lot of extra tickets for the event so we spent a lot of time at the Olympic Stadium watching Athletics events. You could get in with just your accreditation since it was such a big stadium. I have always been a fan of track and field.
Stella was my roommate for most of the training camps leading up to the Olympics so it was just a given that we would be put together at the Olympics. We are both had similar ways of dealing with stress so we definitely helped each other throughout the year.
Gymn.ca: What skills were the hardest for you to master? Did you ever train any
skills that you never ended up competing?
Wood: The hardest skill for me was in the compulsory floor routine...it was called a "yogi." I didn't have very good back flexibility and I had to train this skill over and over and over again. I would describe it to you, but I have to tried to erase the image out of my mind!
As far as skills I didn't compete...there were a few things that I trained at both university and in Canada.
Floor - roundoff 1 1/2 twist through to a full in; double layout (I competed it unsuccessfully at '92 World's in Paris) ; Arabian double front ( competed at university); Arabian double front punch front....
Vault - front front pike 1/2 (competed at university couple of times); front front layout 1/2; front front tuck full/rudi; tsuk 1 1/2…vault was easy for me!
Beam - full-in dismount, roundoff one-armed back handspring mount to immediate back handspring, layout two foot; round off layout walk out mount & front tuck mount (both competed at university successfully); front half mount.
Bars - At university I competed a full twisting Tkatchev for my last two years, which a learned at age 22. I understand it's still considered a "Super E" - not bad for an old lady!
Gymn.ca: Which schools did you consider?
Wood: My choices were between Florida, Fullerton, Washington, Kentucky, and LSU. I only went on recruiting trips to LSU and Washington, however. Florida hired a new coach the day before my trip and they cancelled all recruiting and I didn't use up the rest of the trips due to time restraints between national team training camps and competitions. It was a busy year leading up to the Olympics.
My two recruiting trip were very fun. I also happened to know athletes at both of those Universities - Larissa Lowing at LSU and Shilo Milner (former Altadore teammate) at U Wash. I was able to get a good idea of the campus, the academic resources and the college life from people who were my friends and I was able to trust their opinions! It can be quite hard to decide for some people. Each team tries to sell their program and it can be a little overwhelming.
Gymn.ca: Many Canadians who go NCAA continue to perform a high level of skills,
sometimes even improving their skills. Did you ever consider continuing to compete elite for Canada while at LSU?
Wood: I was 20 years old when I enrolled in my first year of university and I was not sure how much longer I wanted to compete at a high level or how long my body would hold out. I had a great first year and my routines were all out of 10.0, so I didn’t need to change much throughout my college career.
As for coming back and competing internationally again, I did not want to compete at that level anymore. I had reached all of my goals and was satisfied with ending my International career. I definitely do not think it would have been easy to try and continue on. With the training and competition commitments that I had with my university it would have been difficult to get to the trials for different competitions and justify missing any team commitments. I also don’t think I would have been taken seriously by Gymnastics Canada.
There is a different attitude about NCAA gymnastics now. I think that there was and may still be a misconception that it's easier gymnastics in College than in Canada. The NCAA is now and has been for some time a very high level of competition. There are girls in the third and fourth years of university who can, in there 20’s, do skills that some of our Canadians athletes aren’t even attempting.
Gymn.ca: You scored your first perfect ten in college on vault. Can you describe
the competition? The feeling?
Wood: Actually I scored my first ten in 1992 in Calgary at the Altadore Invitational, it was only the second 10.0 recorded by a Canadian next to Lori Strong who got a 10.0 on bars at Nationals in 1987. It was one of the biggest Invitationals in the west at that time and Dory Dynna reported on the event and sent it into IG Magazine. I almost received a 10.0 on floor as well - One judge gave me a 10.0 but the other judge gave me a 9.9. He know who he is! I have since seen the judge many times since taking the job at Alberta Gymnastics and whenever the subject comes up he comments on how I should have gotten the 10.0!!!
The first 10.0 I received at university was just as memorable. It was during my second (sophomore) year at LSU and I was just starting to compete vault again after having ankle surgery. The week before I gotten lost in the air and landed quite short and was not able to walk for a couple of hours. This time I was just hoping to land on my feet and not hurt myself again. When I landed - and I was on my feet and not on my head - I was thrilled. I then realized I had stuck it, and it started to sink in that I might get the 10.0. I wasn’t even thinking about getting a 10.0 and it just happened, it was great!
Gymn.ca: When did you feel the most pressure in your career? The most
Wood: The time I can remember feeling the most pressure was in 1993 at the NCAA Regionals. We had beam for our last rotation and if we didn’t count a fall we would be going on to NCAA Championships. For the first time in my life I actually felt “stressed” and I was not able to watch my teammates compete before me, something that usually relaxed me. The girl right before me fell so I knew I had to hit. I was able to compete a clean routine and overcome my fear, which was a great feeling. The rest of the Beam team managed to stay on and we went on to compete at NCAA’s. The most satisfaction came when I was announced as being on the 1992 Olympic Team.
Gymn.ca: How did your NCAA experience differ from your elite years in Canada?
Wood: Expectations – I didn’t have many going into College, I wasn’t sure how much longer my body would last. I ended up pleasantly surprised in the end to compete all four years and be considered a contender throughout my College career.
Frequency of Meets – We had about 11-13 competitions per year during the months of Jan – Apr. That meant you sometimes competed every weekend until March when we would have two weeks between our Conference, Regional and National Championships.
Team Vs Individual – Everything is about the Team in College. If you are lucky enough to get some individual accolades along the way that was great, but nothing compared to winning as a Team. I was nice to know that if you didn’t feel you could contribute one night someone was always there to jump in and help out!
Gymn.ca: What did you study while at LSU?
Wood: I graduated from LSU with a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics and I am currently licensed as a Registered Dietitian in Alberta. It was not difficult to manage school and gymnastics at university for a few different reasons. You don’t train as many hours as before, you have your teammates and roommates to lean on for support, and most university programs have an entire staff of academic support just for athletes. If you need some tutoring for your economics class they will find someone to help you, so you don’t feel like you are on your own at any time.
Gymn.ca: What have you done since graduating?
|Re-uniting with former Gymnix coach Bernard Petiot|
at the GCG Awards Banquet, June 21st, 2003 in Ottawa
Photo by Grace Chiu
Wood: Since graduating from LSU I came back to Calgary and worked at the local Children’s Hospital for a year before heading off to Medicine Hat, AB, a small town west of Calgary to complete my Dietetic Internship. I then worked in the weight loss industry before I received a call from an old friend in the Alberta Gymnastics World asking me if I was interested in working at the Alberta Gymnastics Federation.
I am now the Women’s Program Coordinator at Alberta Gymnastics. I am responsible for a multitude of different things within the Women’s program in Alberta. I do everything from overseeing all AGF competitions (provincials, zones), training camps, judging courses, team travel, etc., developing the budget for the year, to being a part of the Technical Committees in the provinces.
Gymn.ca: The FIG has been making many revisions to the Code of Points. If you had
the opportunity, what changes would you make to steer gymnastics in a better
Wood: I really think the FIG needs to consider the spectators and fans of the sport more. If you get too far away from the 10.0 scores you will lose your audience. If you make the scoring system too hard for the fans you will lose your audience. They also have to do a better job of selling the sport to the lay person. If you make things to complicated you will lose your audience. There are days when I am watching competitions and I have trouble figuring out what is what and if I can’t figure it out I can’t imagine someone without any gymnastics experience doing it.
Gymn.ca: Do you have any words of wisdom for young gymnasts?
Wood: Just make sure that you have fun. There are always going to be days that are tough, competitions that don’t work out the way you planned, and the inevitable aches and pains, but if you lose the passion and it isn’t fun anymore it won’t be worth it in the end.