Northern gymnasts have no problem gaining altitude

Vaulting to the top

Posted: Friday, March 10, 2006


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  Grips and wrists taped, Team Alberta North's gymnast Chantelle Altares waits her turn on the uneven bars during Thursday's competition. Photo by Roy Shapley

Kelsey Hodges of Team Alaska eyes the upper bar of the uneven bars during individual gymnastics competition Thursday at Kenai Middle School.

Photo by Roy Shapley

Coming off a gold medal performance in team competition earlier in the week, Team Alberta North gymnasts appeared to be the ones to beat in individual events Thursday.

But winning, medaling or beating the others seemed to be the furthest thing from the minds of the Canadian foursome, who seemed to fly down the runway to vault explosively into the air before sticking their landings perfectly.

“I don’t look at scores,” said Alberta North coach Kelly Wills, when asked how her girls did in the vault and uneven bar events.

“I tell them to enjoy doing it. The scoring is beyond our control,” she said.

Wills, who said she has been involved in gymnastics “since I was 16 — a long, long time,” began as a competitive gymnast, moved into coaching and now serves as a Canadian national judge in the floor exercise.

“In the past we have done very well in the Arctic Winter Games,” Wills said. “Since 1998, we’ve taken gold.”

Before the competition got under way Thursday, one of the Alberta North girls, Chantelle Severo Altares, 10, started getting sick.

An older teammate, April-Dawn Diepdael, escorted her out of the Kenai Middle School gym and down the hallway, but within minutes, the diminutive dynamo was speeding toward the vault, flying perhaps three times her own height into the air and coming to a rigid standing stop on the mat on the opposite side.

The audience, jammed in the stands to beyond capacity, erupted in applause.

It was Altares’ warmup.

As athletes from Team Alberta North, Team Alaska, Team Northwest Territories and Team Yukon barreled down the runway, their sportsmanship became apparent as they cheered on one another, seemingly oblivious to who was on which team.

Each team of four girls was seated on folding chairs lined up along the runway and they called each competitor by first name, encouraging their efforts.

“We compete against each other in a lot of competitions during the year,” said Diepdael, adding that many were in the Alberta Games in Hinton, Alberta, just two weeks before the Arctic Winter Games.

Corey Baxter, a member of Team Yukon, said although this is her first Arctic Winter Games, she has competed in the Jurassic Classic, the Twisters Competition in Albertson, Yukon, and in the Yukon Championships.


Grips and wrists taped, Team Alberta North's gymnast Chantelle Altares waits her turn on the uneven bars during Thursday's competition.

Photo by Roy Shapley

Baxter is 10.

“I’ve been doing it for four or five years,” she said, half a lifetime for her so far.

“I did good on the (uneven) bars. I’ll medal in it,” she said matter-of-factly. “It was fun.”

Many of the young competitors said they became interested in gymnastics with encouragement from their parents.

“My mom got me in it ’cause I was climbing all over everything,” said Team Alberta North’s Alicia King.

Team Alaska Coach Rhiann Golder said her team’s strongest event is the balance beam, although she said she thought “my kids have first and second (in the vault).

“I’m not sure yet. I don’t want to sound boastful, but I think they did,” Golder said.

She has been coaching for 10 years, but this is her first competition assignment with Team Alaska.

The team had one practice together — on Sunday.

Two Team Alaska members are from Ketchikan, one is from Anchorage and one from Fairbanks.

“They each have their own routines, so practicing together is not important,” Golder said.

Among those in the crowded stands Thursday were Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, state Rep. Mike Chenault, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams and borough assembly member Grace Merkes.

Merkes is serving as co-chair of gymnastics for the Games and her daughter, Melissa Daugherty, is chair.

“Melissa’s been in gymnastics since sixth grade,” said Merkes. “She competed through high school and has been a coach since she was 16.”

“Go Kelsey. Come on Kelsey,” were cheers rising as another petite, pixie-like gymnast began flying down the runway.

Team Alaska’s Kelsey Hodges planted both hands firmly on the padded vaulting horse and flipped into the air, sticking a perfect landing.

The cheers had come from Team Alberta North.

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