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Local gymnast chases her Olympic dream

Aime MacNeil is aiming to make the Canadian Olympic team in 2024

Aime MacNeil of Guelph had a single goal for last month’s Elite Canada women’s artistic gymnastics competition in Calgary and that was to finish in one of the positions that would get her into the Gymnastic Canada’s high-performance stream.

To do that she had to finish in the top 24 in her very first meet in the novice category.

“This is my last year being able to make novice so I ended up going that way. Novice, junior and senior are all national stream and that's the route to Olympics,” MacNeil said.

“I'm trying to push for Olympics in 2024 in Paris. That's my stretch goal, also. I went Level 9 last year and usually you build up on the provincial stream and if you're young enough to go for the national stream, usually you'll push for it. It was my last year.”

MacNeil, who turned 13 a little after the meet, is a member of the Milton Springers Gymnastic Club, ended up placing 17th in the class.

“It wasn't a perfect meet,” coach Susan Manjak said. “She had quite a few falls and mistakes, but she had a much stronger second day and with it combined she ended up in the middle so we were quite pleased with that. Her goal was to make the top 24 list so that was achieved.”

The two-day meet didn’t get off to a great start for MacNeil. Her first event was beam, her least favourite of the four competitions, and she was the very first competitor to go. All in all, she would’ve felt better on uneven bars, vault or floor. Anything but beam.

“I had everyone staring at me and I was nervous,” she said. “It was really nerve-racking.”

As would be the case on the second day, too, she’d have a fall on beam. However, she wasn’t the only one as nerves likely got to a lot of the competitors.

“There was a lot of falling, luckily, because if you fell once it wasn't the biggest deal,” MacNeil said. “Usually it is. It dropped your score. Right away if you have one bad day, you fall once or you slip once, that's usually it. You're done. Also, the athletes who don't make it, they don't have a chance of being taken for Team Canada unless they're young enough to try again next year. Most of them got letdown and they have to go provincial now.”

There were 45 entered in novice and MacNeil’s two-day score on beam placed her 28th. However, she was top 20 in each of the other three events to easily get her overall ranking into the top 24. She was 20th on floor, tied for 13th on vault and 10th on bars.

Last summer, just competing at the meet should’ve been the goal as she took a bad tumble off the higher bar trying to complete a Gienger and she clunked her back a couple of times – once on the way down and then again when she hit the mat.

“It was my last day of training for the season in the gym,” she said. “Gienger is a pretty advanced skill and it was brand new for me.”

Gienger, which involves a high velocity flip off of high-bar, when she missed the catch on the way down and landed on her upper back and neck.

The move requires the gymnast to make a high-velocity flip off of the high bar and then grab on to the lower bar on the way down. That’s where it all went wrong as she missed the catch on the way down and landed on her upper back and neck.

“I couldn't really see where I was because I was spinning so fast,” she said.

It became evident the next day that there was a cost to the fall.

“I was really sore the next day,” she said. “There was a thing called Showcase that we did, but I ended up not coming because my back was so stiff and it was so sore. I ended up being out for a couple of months.”

While there was an initial fear after x-rays were taken at Guelph General Hospital that there could have been a fracture in her back, an MRI taken at McMaster hospital in Hamilton revealed that wasn’t the case. However, her spine was sprained and it required a couple months to heal.

She came back from the time away from gymnastics even more determined to succeed.

“I had a serious talk with her back in September/October just about what road she was going to take, the provincial stream or to try to get into the high-performance stream,” Manjak said. “We had the discussion of how hard it was going to be -- emotionally, physically and just getting back and getting that confidence back and learning the new, bigger skills and stuff. She was really keen and really excited to take on the challenge of going this route. I'm really proud of her for that. She's done everything we've asked her to do. She's got a great strong work ethic and she's a really positive, happy kid.”

Going that route after the time off meant squeezing in extra work whenever she could.

“My goal has been novice for a long time now, ever since we talked about it so I chose novice,” MacNeil said. “I worked really hard. Most athletes have six months, but I only had four. I really had to push myself. I had to work all the time. While they were chatting in the corner, I was always pushing myself and working during conditioning. Sometimes I had to stay after gym so after my five hours of work I had to stay half an hour or an hour later just to do stuff with my coach.”

MacNeil, who started gymnastics with the Guelph Saultos when she was three and then also had a stint with Dynamo Gymnastics of Cambridge, has had to learn time management at a pretty early age. She’s at the gym 28 hours a week – five hours every day Monday to Friday and three on Saturdays. That means leaving school early, but her Grade 7 teachers at Arbour Vista Public School in Guelph have been understanding.

“I have to leave school every day early at 11:30 a.m. to come to gym and it starts at 12:30 p.m. My teachers have been really good accommodating me,” she said. “Sometimes they'll put together packages for me and I'll have to bring them home and I'll do my homework on top of the work I missed at school. At nights when I get home at 6 o'clock, it's packed full of homework.”

That means a pretty hectic schedule.

“I don't really get very much social time with my friends and things,” she said. “It's really hard balancing it all out. I've always done gymnastics for a long time now so it's been really hard accommodating my friends, my schoolwork and gym plus I do other activities like piano and free dances. My life is pretty busy.”

“High-level athletes usually their strength is time management because they have to be able to do both and keep schoolwork up,” Manjak said. “She's doing a good job at that.”

MacNeil’s social life has to be on Sundays, her day away from the gym.

“On weekends on my Sundays, I'll text my friends and say 'Hey, do you want to come over? Let's hang out' because I never get time with them at school,” she said. “I'm only there for one recess. I try my best to accommodate that, but it's hard.”

The gymnasts in Milton can be considered her family away from home as they know each other best and they all know what each other is experiencing.

“I'm in a smaller group,” MacNeil said. “There are four including me in my group so those are my best friends here because I spend so much time with them.”

After reaching the high-performance level in novice, MacNeil has a meet in Montreal this month then plenty of time in the gym to prepare for the national championships at Gatineau late in May.

“I'll have about 11 weeks, which is pretty big, until I go to national championships,” MacNeil said. “I'll have a little bit of time to advance my skills then.”

“She's got 11 weeks before she has to be at her top for the year at the national championships at the end of May,” Manjak said. “I always tell the girls that we can do everything that we talk about, all the plans and everything else, but at the end of the day it's you that has to step up there and do that routine as best as you can.”

And self-belief can be huge in any individual sport.

“Your coach will also say if you're able to do it, if they believe in you. It's mainly about believing. They'll push you to go for it but you also have your own drive yourself,” MacNeil said. “You have to be able to push yourself and be able to believe in yourself.”