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2001 Women's Elite Canada

The senior competition at the 2001 Elite Canada was a great opportunity to witness the ongoing development of the Canadian women's team, currently ranked tenth in the world. With a remarkable 39 athletes competing, the roster was a testament to the increasing depth of the High Performance program, despite the retirement of five Olympians within the last year. Even more impressive was the fact that the field was so competitive with but one member of the 2001 world championship team. While most of her Ghent teammates either watched from the sidelines or stayed at home to rest, Jennifer Simbhudas carried the torch alone as she looked to gain more experience in her young career.

With Simbhudas entering the competition as the favourite, it was up to the rest of the field to play catch-up, and they almost did. To her credit, Simbhudas, whose younger sister Rebecca placed sixth in the junior competition, looked poised and much more confident than even a few months ago, when she was a surprise addition to the women's world championship team. There she was called upon to compete as an all-around athlete after teammate Amelie Plante suffered an ankle injury that limited her capabilities. Simbhudas responded admirably, and her performance quality at Elite Canada showed she is looking for bigger things in the future.

Using a similar program as in Ghent, Simbhudas claimed the title with solid, generally consistent routines. Her performance was marred only by a fall on her double front uneven bar dismount after an improved effort on the apparatus. Coach July Gershkovich was pleased with Simbhudas' competition, but realized her performance was not a faultless one. "She normally underrotates her [uneven bars] dismount," he noted, "but today she overdid it." When asked why Simbhudas chose to compete at Elite Canada (the world championship team members were exempt), Gershkovich noted his pupil's lack of experience in major competition. Ghent had been her first international meet, and with only a handful of opportunities to compete each year, Simbhudas could still use the seasoning that comes with extra competition.

Pushing Simbhudas throughout the entire competition was the resurgent Danielle Hicks, who is once again training at the Gemini Gymnastics Club. Less than a year ago, Hicks was burned out and frustrated, exhausted from the daily one-hour commute to the Academy of Sport and Fitness where she had been training. After careful consideration with her family and her ASF coaches, the tenth-grader decided it was time to move back to a gym closer to her Oshawa, Ontario, home. Now Hicks is well-rested, healthy, and in love with the sport again, and her future certainly looks bright.

Like Simbhudas, an error on the uneven bars (fall on a Jaeger) kept Hicks from showcasing her full potential, but a clutch balance beam routine in the last rotation almost lifted her to title. Hicks' 8.850 score resulted in a 34.150 total, just 0.025 off that of her more experienced rival. While Hicks and coach Yelena Davydova were frustrated with the bars fall, the two embraced in celebration after a difficult balance beam routine (layout step-out mount, ff to two layouts, double turn, side somi, full-twisting wolf, ff ff 2 twist dismount) that ended a successful day and clinched a top finish.

While Hicks is entering only her first year as a senior FIG competitor (she will be 16 in March), she is still taking her career day by day. When asked about her goals for the future, the strawberry blond remarked that the world championships and Olympics are still too far away to seriously consider; for now, she will focus on next year's Pacific Alliance Championships, national championships, and Commonwealth Games.

Taking the final podium finish of the day was Lydia Williams, the next in a long line of world class athletes from the Sport Seneca program. Williams, who will compete as a senior in Canada next year, is age-ineligible for FIG competition until 2003, making her result even more remarkable considering her tender age. Coached by world championship team coach Carol Angela Orchard and Lawson Coo, Williams has struggled with consistency in the past, but at Elite Canada she played the part of the experienced veteran she is not, suffering only a break on balance beam (illusion with a full turn) throughout her four events.

With several athletes struggling on uneven bars, Williams was able to take the top score of the day on the apparatus (8.375) with clean lines and a perfect bail to handstand, as well as a well-landed double front dismount. Her performance was good enough to slip Williams into third, just edging out Burlington's Aubrey Taylor by 0.025.

Taylor was one of few athletes to hit all four events cleanly, and impressed with her determination and improved exercises. On vault, the 17 year-old showed a high, clean handspring piked front-1/2 for the first time since last year's Olympic Trials, which earned an 8.850 and the third-highest score on the apparatus. Taylor's balance beam routine was also solid, and included a piked front mount, two aerial walkovers, a punch front-back tuck, and two ff's to a double twist dismount (8.300). Taylor's most impressive result of the day came on the uneven bars, however, with a fifth-best score (8.100) on what has traditionally been her weakest event.

In fifth place was Gym-Richelieu's Amanda Haikilis, who looks poised to be a top contributor for Canada in the years to come. With a dramatic flair on the floor exercise (fall on a 2 twist) and a clean double layout uneven bars dismount, Haikilis has a nice balance of skills and style (interesting hold element on beam) that will help the first-year senior stand out among her peers.

Ottawa's Heather Purnell had a good day of competition, showing clean lines and a good full-in uneven bars dismount to take sixth. A balance beam fall kept the 15 year-old from finishing higher, but a dynamic new floor routine impressed enough for an 8.700 (double pike last line). Also notable was Purnell's clean swing on the uneven bars, as well as her high full-twisting tucked Tsukahara on vault. Fourth at the 2001 Canadian championships, Purnell is entering her first year as an FIG senior, and will be looking to make her mark, both nationally and internationally, over the next year.

Gym-Richelieu placed a second athlete in the top ten when Fanny Girard came through with a seventh-place effort. Beginning with a clean, but stock beam routine (punch front mount, ff layout, punch front, gainer piked somi dismount), Girard quietly stalked the top ten throughout the meet. Finishing with an impressive uneven bar effort (8.300, 3rd), Girard gave herself and her club, who landed four athletes in the top 20, much to cheer about.

Reigning junior national champion Kylie Stone was the highest-ranked athlete from Western Canada, finishing eighth. Stone, who along with teammate Lisa Dyck represent Calgary's Stampede City Gymnastics Club, lived up to her advance billing by wowing the crowd, and the judges, with her floor exercise routine. Beginning with an Arabian double front (perfect landing), the powerful, yet petite, Stone caused more than a few jaws to drop when she came back with an easy-looking full-in. Finishing with a whip to double pike, Stone claimed a well-deserved 9.050, the highest score of the day on any event. With a bit more work on uneven bars and balance beam (nice ff ff double back dismount), Stone could be a leader for the Canadian team for many years to come.

Like Gym-Richelieu, the Burlington Aerialettes placed a second athlete in the top ten with veteran Abby Pearson's respectable ninth-place effort. Pearson, who has signed a letter of intent to compete for the University of Arizona next fall, had a solid effort on three apparatus, but gave a higher ranking away with problems on uneven bars. Highlights for Pearson, who last year relocated from Sarnia to Burlington to continue to train with long-time coaches Dave and Liz Brubaker, included a stuck Hristakieva and her trademark Rulfova on balance beam.

Rounding out the top ten was the precise Melanie Banville of the Ottawa Gymnastics Centre. Banville, who placed third as a junior at this year's national championships, shows great maturity in her presentation, and looks ready to handle the challenges of senior-level gymnastics with poise. Showing clean lines and some nice combinations on uneven bars (giant full to Tkatchev on HB, perfect bail to LB, free-hip full pirouette on LB), Banville presented well-composed exercises on all events. With some added difficulty throughout her program, Banville will certainly push her older teammate, Purnell, in the years to come.

Finishing just out of the top ten was Vanessa Meloche, a gymnast who turned heads earlier this year with her decision to train at the U.S. club, Parkettes. Meloche's year has been a difficult one, with injuries and, ultimately, surgery, derailing her world championship team aspirations. With only a month of intense training to ready herself for Elite Canada, Meloche could have been forgiven if she had chosen to withdraw. She competed valiantly, however, and showed some remarkable gymnastics in the process.

In perhaps the best physical condition of any athlete on the floor, Meloche, who was last year's Elite Canada runner-up, spoiled her performances with falls on three events. After a solid, stuck handspring piked front vault (9.000, 1st), Meloche came unglued on her best event, the uneven bars, on a simple sole circle. A breathtaking Markelov and a daring toe-on 1 pirouette on the low bar brought a chorus of ahhs from the crowd, but a fall on her double front dismount left Meloche frustrated. Amazingly, she still scored a 7.975, which was good enough for sixth, and a berth in event finals. Further errors on balance beam and floor exercise kept Meloche below her potential, in terms of ranking, but her future in the sport is a bright one. With a healthy body she is be capable of great results, both in Canada and abroad, in the coming years.

Another bright spot for Seneca was the performance of Julie-Ann Passy, who finished twelfth. With tidy performances and moderate difficulty, Passy remained steady throughout the day, ranking 13th, 15th, and 16th, on bars, beam, and floor, respectively. With a stronger vault (Yurchenko layout), Passy could have challenged the top ten.

World championship team alternate Breanne King had an on-and-off day, with good results on vault and floor, but two falls on her best event, balance beam.

Ortona's Amanda Gering, an energetic sparkplug with a bright future, struggled through her first senior competition. After a solid, if unspectacular, uneven bar routine (nice double front dismount), Gering suffered a pair of falls from balance beam and several landing deductions on floor.

Burlington's Teri Gibson ruined her day on her first apparatus, swallowing two falls on floor exercise, which dropped her near the bottom of the field after one rotation. The rest of her day was spent playing catch-up, but the early mistakes cost Gibson, leaving her 19th, well below her capabilities.

After beginning the competition with a gorgeous beam routine (Omelianchik, needle scale, aerial walkover, ff layout, RO double back dismount - 8.300, 4th), things took a turn for the worst for Burlington's Melanie Rocca. Poised, after three events, for a top-ten finish, the likeable young athlete had a disasterous uneven bar routine (three falls) that dropped her well out of contention. For Rocca, Elite Canada marked the beginning of her senior career in Canada (she is not FIG age-eligible until 2003), and there will certainly be better things to come in her future.

The depth of the field was reinforced by some of the names appearing near the bottom of the results list. Jholeen Ponce, Tracey Rai, Jennifer Charlebois, and Chantelle Tousek all finished out of the top 25, making the costly nature of their errors was readily apparent. In a field packed with present and future senior HP athletes, these young women felt the sting of a competition best forgotten.

Notable floor exercise performances came from Laval's Genevieve Claveau (15th AA) and Viagym's Monica Nolet (30th). Both athletes showed a pleasant style and good music selection that made their exercises particularly memorable, although neither had enough of a tumbling repertoire to earn a trip to event finals.

Once again, Elite Canada provided an interesting glimpse into the future of Canadian gymnastics. Coming at the end of the competitive season in the first year of the new Code of Points, a lacklustre effort might have been expected. Remarkably, however, the competitive spirit was actually quite high, and the athletes were as well prepared as possible in the early going of the quadrennium. With one eye on Athens, Elite Canada proved the Canadian women as a whole have a solid base the national team coaches can work with, and plenty of athletes with potential to shine. Over time, consistency, particularly on the uneven bars, must be improved, and start values increased on all four apparatus. For now, however, the 39 athletes who came to Toronto can be satisfied with their efforts as they take a well-deserved holiday break.

Written by JS

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