Road To The Olympic Games

Alexandra Orlando: Feeling rhythm and blues

Alexandra Orlando didn't want to be an actor, a veterinarian or even an astronaut.

Rhythmic gymnast suffered setbacks on road to Beijing

Orlando has made her childhood dreams come true, but it hasnt been easy. She has faced some challenges on the road to Beijing. ((William West/AFP/Getty Images))

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Alexandra Orlando didn't want to be an actor, a veterinarian or even an astronaut. So, when her Grade 2 teacher asked what she had in mind for the future, Orlando outlined her plans to compete in the Olympics as a rhythmic gymnast.

"I just knew I wanted to go to the Olympics," the 21-year-old says, reflecting on the story she wrote that day. "I wanted it so much."

Orlando has made her childhood dreams come true, but it hasn't been easy. She has faced some challenges on the road to Beijing.

The Toronto native hadn't even started kindergarten when she took up ballet. After a few classes, her instructor noticed Orlando was extremely flexible and suggested she take up rhythmic gymnastics.

Orlando fell in love with the sport, eventually choosing it over soccer, basketball, baseball and some other pastimes.

She started competing internationally when she was 11 years old and, a year later, won the individual all-round event at the 1999 Pan American Games.

Reassesses future

In 2003, Orlando flew to Budapest to compete in the world championships, which also doubled as an Olympic qualifier. She placed 21st in qualification. It was a good result but not good enough to win the right to compete at the 2004 Athens Games. The teenager missed an Olympic berth by a mere one-tenth of a point.

Devastated, she took a few months off to reassess her athletic career. She considered throwing in the towel.

"I doubted how much I loved my sport," she recalls. "But I soon realized that I loved it so much, I had to come back. I knew I was meant to go to the Olympics."

Orlando returned to competition with a vengeance.

In 2006, she won six gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, claiming victory in all four apparatus events (rope, clubs, ribbon, ball), the individual all-round event and the team competition. Only three other athletes, all of them swimmers, have been as successful at the quadrennial event. Orlando was Canada's flag-bearer at the closing ceremony.

In 2007, she won three apparatus events (rope, hoop, clubs) at the Pan American Games. She was also touted as the gold-medal favourite in the ribbon event too, but received a zero when the ribbon became detached from her stick during competition. As a result, she didn't qualify for the individual all-round final. Still, she was the most decorated Canadian at the Games and was the flag-bearer yet again.

A few months later, her childhood dream came true. Orlando placed ninth in the individual all-round event at the world championships, earning a berth at the Beijing Olympics.

It was the first time a competitor from North or South America had finished in the top 10 at the world championships since 1984.

Overcomes ankle problems
Orlando cracked the top 10 again last December, finishing eighth in the individual all-round competition at a test event in Beijing.
Orlando performing with the ribbon, finished eighth in the individual all-round competition at a test event in Beijing. ((China Photos/Getty Images))

The celebration had barely ended when her longtime mentor, Mimi Masleva, headed to Spain to start a full-time coaching job.

The move posed a problem, but it wasn't insurmountable.

For most of the past seven months, Orlando has been training six days a week with coaches in Toronto, sending occasional videotapes of sessions to Masleva. She has also spent weeks at a time training with Masleva in Europe.

Unfortunately, Orlando, 21, has also spent some time on the sidelines. She tore a ligament in her ankle this spring and had to bow out of several competitions, including the national championships.

But Orlando, a five-time national champion, is in fine form heading to Beijing. And though eastern Europeans are expected to crowd the medal podium, Orlando can hardly wait to compete.

"I'm ready for this," she wrote recently in her blog for CBC Sports Online, "and there is not a doubt in my mind that these Olympics are going to be the greatest moment in my athletic career."

It's a moment she has been anticipating for most of her life.

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