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What made Shewfelt shine

Posted: Friday, May 22, 2009 | 12:34 PM

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It was at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 that a gymnastics analyst and coach by the name of Carol Angela Orchard turned to me and offered her perspective on the fact that Canadians would be also-rans in this sport yet again.

“But they’ve got this kid coming up from Calgary named Kyle Shewfelt,” she said. “He’s going to be something.”

Jean Paul Caron, the head of Gymnastics Canada, nodded his head in agreement. “He’s the one,” said Caron. “Finally!”

Over the course of the next dozen years Kyle Shewfelt turned out to be the epitome of Olympic gymnastics greatness. He was a master craftsman in what many consider to be the world’s most difficult sport – the one that just about every kid couldn’t do in physical education class. From the age of six, at the Altadore Gymnastics Club in an industrial section of the Stampede City, he worked with his trusty coach, Kelly Manjak.

It was a dingy place, as I recall, and outside the smell of the nearby abattoir was putrid. But in watching Shewfelt train you forgot all that and basked in the glow of his sunny disposition. Kyle Shewfelt could light up the gloom.

And he was good – no he was fantastic – at what he did.

At the succeeding Olympics in Sydney he had a move on the vault named after him – a move too complicated to get into here. It’s enough to say he was blazing a new trail for Canadians in his sport and going where no others could or possibly ever would.

Orchard, by this time the coach of national women’s team, was there to remind me. “Did you see that?” she asked wide-eyed. “He’s got it. He’s going to be Olympic champion someday. I can’t wait!”

You know the rest of the story. Shewfelt became one of the few Canadians, male or female, to win a medal at the world championships in Anaheim, Calif., in 2003. He won two of them.

Then the next summer in Greece he claimed the gold medal in the men’s floor exercise – a Canadian breakthrough. His pose atop the podium in Athens with the laurel wreath adorning his head was classic. It became a signature image of CBC’s association with the Olympics.

Afterward, when Shewfelt came to the sidelines to be interviewed by Olympic speed skating champion Catriona Le May Doan, he embraced her with the cameras rolling. She was later warned not to be too familiar with the athletes. In fact it was Shewfelt who had initiated the hug.

“This means the world to me,” he told her with a look of wonder plastered on his face.

Watching and listening from the booth, I couldn’t tell if he meant the gold medal or the realization that he had just been admitted to the circle of greatness he so admired.

In Stuttgart, Germany, at the world championships 11 months prior to the Beijing Olympics, he broke both his legs. Interviewing him the day after the incident, with those battered limbs encased in splints and strapped into a wheelchair, Shewfelt told me the most astounding thing.

“I’ll make it back for the Olympics,” he beamed. “You can count on it.”

He was, as you’ll recall, true to his word.

Now Kyle Shewfelt withdraws from the competitive part of his gymnastics life. But in making that difficult choice he needs to be assured that only so much polish can be applied to a shimmering contribution. His stellar career requires no more buff.

What is it that made Kyle Shewfelt shine?

He was truly exceptional - an original - a Canadian pioneer.

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