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THUNDER BAY — On Friday morning, members of the Ultimate Gymnastics competitive team and their coach walked into their gym for the first time in seven months.
Owner Greg Balec plans to officially open the gymnastics club on Aug. 1 and start into the competitive program.
“It kind of hit us a little quicker than I thought it was going to, and that’s good. Things are moving quickly in the right direction,” he said.
Balec closed the gym five days before the Dec. 26, 2020 lockdown due to reports of a gymnast who had been exposed to the COVID-19 virus.
He and his team followed the Thunder Bay District Health Unit protocols closely and when they received a call from a parent explaining their child was exposed at school, Balec closed down ahead of Dec. 26 to “prevent a potential catastrophe.”
“It was the smartest thing we could have done,” he said. From that point all coaches, staff and gymnasts were tested to ensure everyone was safe.
Being away from the gym, the training was hard on the gymnasts and their coach. The students relied on Zoom calls from the coach who walked them through training sessions online.
“It was really difficult, especially being a high-level athlete,” said gymnast Olivia Arena. “You’re in the gym 20-plus hours each week . . . so going from 20 hours to nothing was really difficult, especially keeping up at home. Gymnastics isn’t the kind of sport you can do in your basement.”
Arena says the coach, Cheronne Viljoen, was really good with Zoom calls, which they did five times a week to keep them in shape for when they would go back into the gym.
“I really noticed that today wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be,” she said.
Gymnast Jessica Otto says they “made the best of what we could do.”
“When we could, we would go outside to train while keeping spread out, but I’m really excited to get back to the gym,” she said.
Gymnast Jordan Mastrangelo juggled school and training online, keeping her glued to the screen.
“It was really difficult with everything being online — both school and gymnastics — it wasn’t the easiest,” she said. “Being used to training with my friends all the time and never seeing them for a year was really difficult. It was fun to be able to train and condition on Zoom but it was hard doing it in your basement because not everyone has high ceilings.”
Viljoen, the gym’s head coach, was hired by Balec from South Africa and worked extensively with the team through the Zoom online sessions.
“It was very hard for me to be away from the kids. We are each other’s support system where we all are the best of friends,” said Viljoen. Being away from them broke my heart. It’s kids that you spend more time with than your own family. . . . It’s very hard and it messes with you emotionally.”
Viljoen called the gymnasts and their families “her people” and says they are a tight-knit family.
“I have to give it to the girls. They were all super dedicated. They came to the Zooms, they worked hard. They did the best they could,” she said. “They showed me their commitment and love for the sport and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Viljoen says she worried about them from a competitive aspect during their time apart.
“They are growing, they are teenagers, their bodies change and now they have to come back, and how do you explain to a seven-year-old why they can’t do the things that they used to be able to,” she said. “We are going to take it slow; lots of conditioning, lots of basics and I have faith in each and every one of them that they will get back to where they were, and become even better.”
Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal