Gym for life

In a non-descript building in the west of Johannesburg, a group of brilliant young gymnasts is soaring far above the drugs and gangsterism that plague their neighbourhood. Anelisa Ngewu visits the Golden Lions Gym. Herman Verwey took the pictures.

Sometimes, Kaede Kers (12) is scared of falling.

It’s a reasonable fear when you’re performing some pretty awe-inspiring aerial feats – and particularly when you’re the one being flung into the air again and again during a gruelling practice session.

Kaede and her gym partners, Claudia Havenga (17) and Chandre Glade (15), inspire awe in the younger, less experienced gymnasts who train at Newlands’ Golden Lions Gymnastics club.

Newlands is in the west of Johannesburg and it’s not the kind of place that often makes headlines for the right reasons.

Drug and alcohol abuse, as well as gangsterism, are daily realities for the children of Newlands.

But at Golden Lions Gymnastics, they’ve found a sanctuary – a place where hard work, discipline and the freedom of being airborne are paramount.

And it’s not just children from Newlands who train at the gym.

They hone their craft alongside youngsters from around the city.

The gym caters for gymnasts aged five to 20.

Golden Lions is not one of those world-class high-performance centres that churn out champions.

Its members don’t bring wealth and resources, but they have incredible talent and, despite financial struggles, the gym gets by.

They perform at malls to raise funds and some parents run the gym’s fundraising committee.

Watching Claudia and Chandre fling their petite projectile, Kaede, into the air to perform twists and turns with the elegance of a swan is faintly terrifying.

“I love it,” says Kaede of the adrenaline rush that comes when you perform tricks during free fall.

“When I’m used to (the moves) it feels nice, but when I’m learning, it feels scary. I’m scared I’ll fall.”

The trio placed 15th in their age group at last year’s Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships in the US.

This year, Kaede wants to win the championships and earn a place among the top 10 gymnasts in the world.

She’s wary of the threat posed by competitors from Russia, China and Japan.

There’s a certain soundtrack when you’re surrounded by gymnasts – squeaking springs, the thump of feet skidding across the floor, a soft thud as a previously airborne gymnast returns to earth.

Iman Lawrence (8) is a self-confessed front-flip fanatic. That means her favourite move involves flipping over head first.

She taught herself the basics of gymnastics on her father’s bed at home before joining Golden Lions Gymnastics this year.

“I was practising and practising (on my father’s bed). I wanted to be able to do a front-flip on the ground so I can be cool. I’m still practising to do it on the ground,” she says.

Above the thrum of ordinary gym noises, there’s a stern voice issuing reprimands and calling for a move to be repeated with more grace and finesse.

Natalia von Willigh, who comes from Russia, has been coaching at the club since 2007 and places a high premium on discipline.

“There’s a different culture and level of discipline (in South Africa). The children are more relaxed,” Von Willigh says, pointing out that academics tend to come before sport here on the priority list.

In spite of the challenges, she is proud of her students.

“I’m a very kind woman, mother and coach, but I’m not friends with them.

“I must show them that I’m the coach so they don’t waste my time and theirs.

“The club is my life. The kids are my life. I can stay here all day long,” she says.

Her work and the role the gym plays is warmly received by the parents who sometimes come to watch their children take to the air.

“We want structure, and want them busy and occupied so they can stay away from drugs, teenage pregnancy and Aids,” says Marilyn Glade, whose two children train at the club.

“Things like this help keep them off the streets,” agrees Veronica Brooks-Lodewyk.

Her daughter, eight-year-old Jordan, is attending class at the gym for the first time.

“It is not only boys who are into drugs. I am preparing my girl for the future,” Brooks-Lodewyk explains.

The world championships happen every two years.

In 2014 Von Willigh and her gymnasts are hoping for glory in France.

The gym will send three trios, who are all sticking to a rigorous training schedule because they are determined to win medals.

“Of course I want gold, but bronze will be very nice...for now. My dream is that my kids win something,” Von Willigh says.

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