Ellie Black leads Canadian team to Pan Am silver, and towards Olympic qualifier
Team continues to build momentum towards world championships
LIMA, Peru — Four years ago, Ellie Black was the most-decorated athlete at the Pan American Games, winning five medals at the Toronto event.
Black also qualified for the all-round final, as well as all four individual apparatus finals. But her focus on Saturday was the resolve of her teammates.
"We had some little mistakes here and there today, but I was really proud of the girls," Black says. "We didn't have the greatest beam rotation, we had a couple mistakes [but] we were able to pick it up, move to floor, have some great performances and keep that momentum building.
"Overall I'm really proud of our team today, this was a really great chance to get back out there on the international stage once before world championships and just have that confidence in themselves and be able to learn from those mistakes and get stronger and better."
WATCH | Canada scores silver in team gymnastics:
And that's this team's mission statement: do everything it takes to prepare for the world championships. Winning medals is special, but Black says she's more concerned about how Lima can help her and her team prepare for the upcoming world championships in Germany — where they can forge their path to the Olympics.
"[Lima] is a great experience for us to start building momentum as we go into the fall, because world championships is where we have a shot to qualify a team for the Olympic Games for Tokyo 2020," Black says.
And the team event was the main focus for Black, who is the veteran leader of this new-look Canadian women's artistic gymnastics squad.
She and Woo are the only returning members of the squad that competed in Toronto and won silver, and Black says she's excited to see what her newest teammates can achieve as they gather valuable experience ahead of worlds.
"It's exciting to be back with this new team and see what we can accomplish," Black says. "We've been working hard over the past year to make sure everyone gets a chance to train together as a team [and] feel like they are part of a family.
"That's one of the things we really work toward, our team unity and our team bond. That's really important for when you go out there as a team, everyone [needs to] feel comfortable and feel they have what they need [to succeed]."
Black's 19-year-old teammate Olsen says they're a tight-knit group — and that's something special in this sport.
"We're all pretty close with each other," Olsen says. "It's just that close connection and that bond that we share.
"I feel like we can all have each other's backs and all count on them if we need anything."
Team Canada has been on a roll
Senior team head coach David Kikuchi says this silver-medal result in Lima is just another example of his team finding unparalleled success.
"This group and team that we have here, they've got so much talent and so much potential," Kikuchi says. "At world championships last year we set a record for team placement — we were fourth as a country and we had four different athletes in the event finals, which is amazing.
"In the history of Canadian women's gymnastics we now have three [world championship] medals, and two of them were last year. We've been in a bunch of event finals the last couple years, [and] I would guess the last two world championships we probably have more event finals than the rest of history combined."
Kikuchi attributes a lot of that success to Black's talent and leadership.
"Ellie has been the team captain in the past and she's got the most experience out of everyone, and some of the top results," he says. "She's really been a great leader for us."
Lima offers crucial experience
With coming competitions deciding their status in Tokyo, Lima offers Black and her teammates both a measuring stick as well as a peek inside what an Olympic-sized competition is like — something the team captain says is critical for her young teammates to experience.
Things like staying in the Athletes' Village, meeting other Team Canada athletes, as well as transportation and dining are all out-of-the-norm for her teammates.
"It's very different and that's why it will be so important to get a test run under your belt before going to the Games next summer," Black says.
And there's no mistaking the fact that Tokyo is the ultimate goal for Black and her teammates. Kikuchi says the Pan Ams are all about putting his team in the best spot to qualify as one of the top 12 countries at the world championships in early October.
"We're not really looking to prove anything [in Lima]," he says. "The main goal for us is qualification for the Olympics...that's been the whole goal for the past three years to get ready for that.
"This is our last major competition before the world championships, so it's a dress rehearsal for the main event. If we have any issues or anything like that it's a good chance to find out and iron those out."
Olsen agrees, and adds that it's another chance for Canada to make some noise before they carve their path to Tokyo.
"This is a really good practice meet for us before world championships," Olsen says. "This is a really great opportunity for Canada to show where we're standing and where we're at before worlds and Olympics. Kind of get the nerves out and to show everyone that we're out here to fight."
Years of sacrifice, determination
The Lima Games are also an opportunity to showcase all the work the Canadians have put in over the last three years, which Kikuchi says has been staggering.
"[Gymnastics] is a huge commitment," Kikuchi says. "It's got to be a lifestyle.They're training 25 to 30 hours a week in the gym, [and] they've been doing that since they were 10-years-old.
"Along with extra exercise and conditioning outside of the gym, their whole lifestyle has to be built around making themselves the best athletes that they can be. Their whole lives are built around being great athletes, so it's everything.
That dedication means Black has put aside other things, like her studies, for the time being, as she's committed to doing as much as she can while her body can still handle the stress of living a gymnast's life.
"It's a big time commitment," Black says. "I always say to myself, 'I love gymnastics so much and you better do it while you can, you know you can't do gymnastics forever.' I just try and take in those experiences, do what I love, and that's gymnastics right now.
"A lot of my time is spent training and going to physio and sports psychology and all those things that come with the job of gymnastics."
That job also comes with its share of perks — which, for Black and Olsen, includes competing for their country on the world stage.
"Representing Canada is probably one of the most incredible things in the world," Black says. "It's so rewarding wearing the Maple Leaf on your chest, it's is one of the best feelings, you feel so proud.
"You know everyone is back home cheering you on, no matter what."
"Having that Maple Leaf on my chest makes me feel so proud to be Canadian and [that] all these hours that I've put in the gym and sacrifices that I've had to make are finally paying off," Olsen says. "I think Canada's really ready to show everyone what we have been working toward and how hard we've been working for it.
"Now it's our time to shine and show everybody that we're here."