Polishing a star

2008-11-18 00:00

THE moment gymnastics coach Gail Adamson saw the then nine-year-old Jennifer Khwela in action during a talent-spotting session at Carrington Heights Primary School in 2001, she knew she’d found a gem.

“Jennifer showed ability right from the start and has simply kept on achieving,” said Adamson, whose daughter Julie is now Jennifer’s coach. “Later, we learnt that she’d been jumping off the furniture at home to try to copy the gymnasts she’d seen on television during the Olympics of 2000. So she had an interest in the sport too.”

Now 16, and having skipped a number of the sport’s 10 formal proficiency levels along the way, Jennifer recently took top honours in women’s artistic gymnastics at the National Gymnastic Games in Cape Town.

This makes her the first black girl to become a senior national champion and to have a realistic shot at being chosen to represent South Africa at the London Olympics in 2012.

Jennifer’s next big competition is the African Championships to be held in January in Egypt. Then there are the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and the world championships in 2011, from which the Olympic athletes will be drawn.

“Jennifer has a definite chance of being selected as an Olympic ‘wild card’, a system which encourages the participation of talented individuals from under-represented countries and continents,” said Adamson.

But it very nearly didn’t happen for Jennifer, who, after being picked for training by Adamson, failed to turn up on the first day.

“The form to be filled in for training went astray and and the family didn’t have the R10 needed to join,” said Adamson. Recognising what the opportunity meant to her granddaughter, Jennifer’s grandmother Rebecca Khwela made the long walk to the gym in order to meet the coaches and make a plan for Jennifer to be given a second chance.

Today, the Grade 10 pupil from West Ridge High School is the only gymnast left at the APN gymnastics club out of an original cohort of 26 boys and girls who were hand-picked in 2001 and began training.

Jennifer, who has never known her father, still enjoys the unstinting support of her grandmother who sells second-hand clothes and works as a domestic. “When I travel, she does her best to find money for me,” says Jennifer. “My Auntie Maggie helps a lot too.” She adds that her mother is proud of her too, “especially now that I’m receiving some sponsorship”.

Adamson says psychological and emotional support from family is critical, given the rigorous training regimen followed at the higher levels.

Jennifer trains every day for four hours after school and sometimes on Saturdays. At 7 pm, she returns to her Umbilo home — which houses 11 people — to do her homework. She sits down to a meal prepared specially to meet her nutritional needs. She sees her friends at weekends, if she’s not training, and on public holidays.

“It’s hard work,” admits the diminutive but powerfully built gymnast, “although I find my routines much easier now because of all the training.”

Of the four disciplines — beam, vault, floor and asymmetrical bars — which form part of women’s artistic gymnastics, Jennifer says her favourite is the vault because it makes use of her strength. Her favourite tumble is the double back, which I later watch her execute, seemingly without effort.

Jennifer admits to wanting to quit a couple of years ago. “Some of my friends left the gym and it seemed like a lot of work.”

According to Adamson, puberty is a difficult time for girl gymnasts and there are a number of dropouts during the years between 13 and 16. “Jennifer definitely took a dip emotionally and psychologically, and her diet needed to be revised. Girls of that age also generally start to develop fear and this needs to be carefully managed.”

Both teachers by profession, Gail and Julie have, since 2000, put their heart and soul into reaching out to black communities where they believe the pool of gymnastic talent is substantial. But they also know how difficult it is to persuade financially struggling families of the benefits of a career in gymnastics.

“Gymnastics is still a minor sport with a relatively low profile, particularly in black communities,” says Julie. “It certainly doesn’t attract the same level of sponsorship as the big men’s sports like soccer or rugby, so it’s hard for us to explain to families why their children need to be spending so much time and effort to pursue it.”

Although some of Jennifer’s food requirements and her psychological and medical needs are sponsored by Macsteel Maestros Athlete Programme and Milano have given her a leotard, the cost of training and attending various training camps in preparation for major events is carried by Gail and the APN club which she runs. “[SA gymnast] Kelly Golding has also helped us, but I’m fundraising on a non-stop basis,” says Gail, who conducts gymnastics classes at three schools in the Durban area, one of which is given pro bono.

From the end of this year, the Adamsons will also be without gym premises because the owners of the APN Hall in Carrington Heights will be renting it out as a functions venue. “If I can’t find somewhere else to go, we will no longer be in the gymnastics business,” she says.

It’s a pity because, judging by Jennifer’s successes, the mother-and-daughter team are getting it right. “In the United States, every child does gymnastics and you can earn gymnastics bursaries to study at college. As a result, they have a huge pool of gymnasts there. Here, there’s no funding, but the natural talent is abundant,” says Gail Adamson. “While we can do it, we will.”

• To learn more about the APN Gymnastics Club or to make a donation, visit http://apn.edutec.co.za/ or contact Gail Adamson at 082 696 7668.

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