Olympics Summer

Canadian gymnasts take great leap forward

The Canadian men's gymnastics team is the strongest ever and is expected make its mark in Beijing.

With more funding and better coaching the men are turning heads

Brandon O'Neill, seen here at last year's world championships in Germany, is one of six male gymnasts chosen to represent Canada in Beijing. ((Michael Probst/Asssociated Press))

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When he looked up at the electronic scoreboard, Jeff Thomson knew the Canadian men were capable of great things.  

They had arrived in Turkey for the 2005 World University Games hoping to do well but had exceeded expectations. They had finished fifth in the gymnastics team competition, ahead of the mighty Russians.  

"The World University Games is the highest level of competition outside the world championships and the Olympics," says Thomson, the men’s program director at Gymnastics Canada. "So that result was really impressive." 

Ten years ago, the Canadian men’s team would have been lucky to finish in the top 12 at an elite event. But times have changed. The team is the strongest it has ever been, and is poised to make its mark in Beijing.  

Thomson traces the team’s ascent to 2000, when Edouard Iarov took over as head coach. The native of Kazakhstan had groomed several champion gymnasts, first in the former Soviet Union and then in France.

He gained prominence as coach of gymnast Valeri Liukin. The Russian won four medals (two gold, two silver) at the 1988 Seoul Games.

"Edouard's attitude is that you don’t go to the Olympics just to participate," Thomson explains. "You go there to win."

Eight promising young men

Soon after Iarov arrived, Gymnastics Canada earmarked more money for the development of eight promising young men, sending them to more competitions and training camps.

The effort paid off.

Eight months after finishing fifth in Turkey, the men placed second at the Pacific Alliance Championships in Hawaii. They finished behind Japan but ahead of China and the United States, both gymnastics powers.  

In October 2006, the Canadians placed fifth in the qualification round and sixth overall at the world championships in Denmark. It was the Canadian men’s best finish ever at the annual event. 

"We knew we were going to do well, but we never imagined that going out there and doing our routines would put us in the top five in the qualification round," gymnast Kyle Shewfelt says. "We were all a little shocked and giddy when we looked up at the scoreboard."  

Shewfelt and teammate Adam Wong sat out last year’s world championships in Germany because they were injured, but the team managed to finish eleventh and win the right to send a full contingent (six competitors and one alternate) to Beijing. 

It was a testament to the depth of talent on the men’s side.  

"In a sense, that eleventh-place finish in Germany was more impressive than the sixth-place finish in Denmark," says Thomson. "We qualified without two of our strongest competitors. Many teams could not have done that."

Shewfelt hits road bump 

Shewfelt is the biggest name on the men’s team.  At the 2004 Athens Games, he became the first Canadian to win a medal in artistic gymnastics when he struck gold in the floor exercise.  He won a bronze medal in that event at the 2006 world championships, where he was the only Canadian man to qualify for an individual final.

The gymnast was gathering speed on the road to Beijing when he hit a road bump. At a training session just before last year’s world championships, he botched a landing, breaking both legs and damaging some ligaments.

He underwent reconstructive surgery soon after and spent months on the sidelines. Almost a year later, he is still not fully recovered. Yet he is too good to be discounted in Beijing.

"I don’t even think about him not being ready. In my mind, he's there," Gymnastics Canada President Jean-Paul Caron told a Calgary newspaper. "Kyle Shewfelt at even 70 or 80 per cent is a huge help to our team.

"There's a chance he may not be at 100 per cent [in Beijing]. We have to face that fact. But he'll find a way around it. I'm confident of that. He's a fighter.''

The 26-year-old athlete proved Caron right at a test event in June, when he returned to competition for the first time since he was injured.

On the first day of the event, he competed against his teammates on the floor, vault, rings and high bar. He posted the best result on vault and finished second in the floor exercise.

O’Neill ‘a powerful athlete’

One of his teammates did even better. Brandon O'Neill finished first on the floor and parallel bars and placed second on the vault and high bar.

O'Neill hurt his ankle while training Aug. 4 but, at this point, is still expecting to compete in Beijing. "He is an unsung hero," Thomson says. "Look at his results. They’re remarkable."

O’Neill won a silver medal in the floor exercise at the 2005 world championships in Australia. Also, he has won three gold, five silver and two bronze medals in the past four years of World Cup competition. All but one (a silver in the vault) were in the floor exercise.

Thomson describes the 23-year-old gymnast as a "powerful athlete" whose muscular build makes him well suited to the vault and the floor.

Thomson says O’Neill’s tumbling is as good as that of his competitors, if not better, and believes he has a good chance of winning a medal in Beijing as long as he sticks his landings.

Gymnastics Canada officials are optimistic that Shewfelt and O’Neill will make their event finals, and Thomson is "hopeful" about a couple of the others — especially parallel bars specialist Grant Golding and Nathan Gafuik, who excels in the parallel bars and the high bar.

Adam Wong, left, and Kyle Shewfelt have recovered from injuries and are headed to Beijing. ((Canadian Press))

Golding, Gafuik, Wong and David Kikuchi will join Shewfelt and O’Neill in Beijing. Kikuchi is from Fall River, N.S., and O’Neill is from Edmonton. The other four athletes are from Calgary.

Ken Ikeda of Abbotsford, B.C., is the first alternate, while Jared Walls of Edmonton is second reserve.

"The six starters have shown they can make World Cup finals. So, on a good day, they could make the Olympic finals," says Thomson. "And once you’re there, anything can happen."

"We have a very balanced and experienced team, and we all know how to nail our routines when the pressure is on," adds Shewfelt.

With several top gymnasts in their prime and more money coming in — Thomson says the men’s team now receives eight times more funding than it did in 1999 from Sport Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee and Gymnastics Canada combined — the future looks bright for the team. 

Thomson is excited about the future, and about what he might see when he looks up at the scoreboard in Beijing.  

"I am not going to predict a medal," says Shewfelt, "but I believe this is Canada's greatest gymnastics team ever, and we are going to surprise a lot of people with our performance." 

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