Young gymnast on the rise

Video of a recent floor routine by 12 year-old gymnast Russel Kelly ends in a freeze frame that shows him in mid-air, pin straight and upside down.

Obeying gravity on a couch at home in the Beach, Kelly describes what it’s like to run, jump and flip above a gym floor.

“I’m just thinking, ‘Pull,” he says. “I don’t really notice anything around me. The next thing I know, I’m on the ground.”

There is a window lever in Russel’s room that is also battling gravity – it’s where he hangs his dozens of medals. Most are for gymnastics. Others are from swimming and track meets at Williamson Road Junior Public School.

Russel Kelly defies gravity on the rings at the East York Gymnastics Club. PHOTO: Donna Santos
Russel Kelly defies gravity on the rings at the East York Gymnastics Club.
PHOTO: Donna Santos

Russel earned one of his biggest medals in May, when he placed first among 22 gymnasts from seven provinces competing at the Eastern Canadian Gymnastics. Not only did Russel win, scoring the highest difficulty ratings in rings, his favourite event, and pommel horse, he and the Ontario squad also won top team.

“You’d think they would be competitive with each other,” said Clare Foreshaw, Russel’s mother. “But they were all best buds when they left.”

Before Easterns, Russel and Nathaniel Teng of Ottawa finished several contests within a few points of each other, and were natural rivals.

But as they did their six events in Oshawa – floor, high bar, vault, parallel bars, pommel horse and rings – the two high-fived each other every chance they got.

For a mostly solo sport, Foreshaw said gymnastics is very collegial.

“The older kids at the gym mentor the younger kids and they’re all very tight,” she said, referring to Russel’s friends at the nearby East York Gymnastics Club.

“It’s awesome.”

While they mostly compete alone, gymnasts face the same pressure.

On a comedy website called “Lols Town,” someone has posted one of several ‘fail videos’ showing Olympic gymnasts falling or missing their landings.

Non-gymnasts may laugh when gymnasts fall, Russel wrote in the comments, but it is “dream crushing.”

“Imagine making it so far and messing up,” he wrote. “Think about that next time you might post a video like this.”

In one competition, Russel tried four times to spin around the high bar, but didn’t have enough momentum. Even though he knew he would be docked points, Russel held it together and finished.

“He doesn’t let it derail him,” said Foreshaw.

“It must be really hard to have that control.”

Russel started gymnastics at age five, after a former gymnast spotted him doing chin-ups on the monkey bars at Kew Gardens.

After qualifying for the competitive stream, he now trains 21 hours a week. He has a two-week summer break before he builds up new routines for the January to May competition season, which has so far taken him everywhere from Virginia to Vancouver.

Despite those commitments, Russel gets no special breaks in his Grade 6 class at Williamson Road. He even held down a lawn-mowing job last spring.

“I know that I’ve got to keep my homework and school up, or I won’t be going, some days, to the gym,” said Russel, who already has his eye on Michigan State University.

It helps that Michigan State has a top gymnastics team and several East York Club members have landed scholarships there. But Russel also likes doing math.

Besides Epke Zonderland, who won gold for his spectacular high bar performance in London’s 2012 Olympics, Russel chose to do a school project this year all about astrophysicist and math whiz Stephen Hawking, someone he admires not only for his math skills but also for his plans to visit outer space.

Asked how far he would like to go in gymnastics, Russel said competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be “awesome.”

“But I’m not totally focused on that right now – I just want to be a regular kid.”

“I’ll train for it, and see how far I can go.”

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