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Monday, July 17, 2000

Fun takes a tumble under Rodionenko

  Andrei Rodionenko's English isn't very good. He also has trouble with Swahili and Tagalog. The coach of the Canadian women's gymnastics team is from the former Soviet Union for Pete's sake. But he did make this point loud and clear yesterday:

 If you want your kids to learn about hard work, discipline and sacrifice, open your wallet, cancel your appointments for the next 15 years and sign them up for gymnastics. If you want your kids to have fun, let them chase after the ice-cream truck.

 "You must understand," Rodionenko said yesterday, following the last day of competition at the Canadian Olympic trials at Seneca College, "gymnastics is not fun."

 Not exactly a ringing endorsement on the merits of gymnastics as a leisure activity. But Rodionenko doesn't care. It's not his job to recruit little Lisa or little Bart to the sport.

 It's his job to develop the best Canadian team possible. And he is doing the job. For the first time since 1992, Canada has qualified a full women's team for the Games and will send six gymnasts to Sydney. Once there, the goal is to place higher than the team did at the 1999 world championships (10th).

 To you hoseheads weaned on hockey, which is pursued as a serious, major sport in maybe eight countries, eighth-place overall in gymnastics would be a significant achievement.

 If the Canadian team did surpass France, it would be a scandalous situation for the French team, which has a budget in the neighbourhood of $17 million annually. Gymnastics Canada's budget is about $1.4 million. It's pretty well the same story for the British, Italian and other teams in the top 12.

 "And the very top teams in gymnastics, the superpowers? Forget it," said Lise Simard, the Canadian women's team program director. "That's another level. Really, we're the only amateur country in the top-15 in the world. We're doing miracles with what we have."

 Many Canadian officials, Simard included, credit Rodionenko with turning the program around. When he landed on these shores a few years ago, fresh out of the successful Soviet system, Rodionenko decided that the first, and possibly most important order of business, was to change the mentality of the athletes, coaches, officials and even parents -- away from the "have fun and do your best" attitude, to something more, well, serious.

 "You talk about women's soccer or hockey. The girls in those sports, they're playing. Gymnastics is no game. When I first came here, I was told that Canada is hockey country, that hockey is a religion," Rodionenko said. "I said 'Okay. Gymnastics is not a religion. It's life.' "

 Looking over at the first three athletes to be named to the Olympic squad -- Kate Richardson of Coquitlam, B.C., Julie Beaulieu of Montreal and Yvonne Tousek of Cambridge (the final trio will be named today) -- none of them weigh more than a wet bag of noodles, but Rodionenko suggested that they're as tough as the biggest, meanest NHLer.

 "And I know hockey very good, probably better than you," said the coach, whose son-in-law, Slava Fetisov, played defence for the Soviet team and in the NHL.

 Perhaps he has a point. How much courage does it take to charge toward a pommel horse at full speed, flipping and twisting in the air a few times, before and after launching off a springboard? Probably a lot.

 How much courage does it take to pound one's body 25-30 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, to ignore severe pain, to pick yourself off the mat after crashing face-first off the high bar, as Crystal Gilmore did on Saturday, and finish the competition strongly?

 Tousek's coach, Elvira Saadi, pulled her athlete out of meets for a year because her ankles and knees basically were shot.

 "But she didn't complain, she just wanted to compete," said Saadi, who competed alongside the great Olga Korbut for the Soviet team at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

 How much sacrifice does it take to be a top gymnast?

 Richardson, who dominated the two-day competition at Seneca, spends hours every day travelling from her home in Coquitlam to her club in Abbotsford. In her free time, she enjoys eating, sleeping and doing homework. Junk food is strictly verboten. Doing normal, everyday teenage stuff, is a rare treat. And friends?

 "There are no friends at Olympic Games," Rodionenko said.

 With Rodionenko in charge, these girls have to be tough.