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Ernestine Russell: Windsor Athlete Canada's First Female Olympic Gymnast

Canadian women brought home 7 of the 14 medals won at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Considering that the modern Olympics, starting with Paris in 1900, did not originally intend to include women at all, we've come a long way, baby.

by Shelley Divinich Haggert

olympian.jpgErnestine (Ernie) Russell, grew up at the ballet bar. Her mother, an examiner for Britain's Royal Academy, was in charge of her dance training. The problem was, Ernie did not have the body of a ballerina.

A neighbour, former M.P.P. Bernie Newman, and a teacher at W.D. Lowe, had formed the Vocational Boy's gymnastics team. Newman suggested that the frustrated ballerina try the trampoline. According to Ernie, "I got on, and I never got off."

Competing for the first time when she was 13, Ernie eventually won nine Canadian championships. Newman's dream was to see Ernie and team member Ed Gagnier compete in the Olympics. Canada had never had a female gymnast at the Olympics. At 17, Ernie became the first, and participated in Melbourne Australia in 1956.

It's only recently that Ernie's realized how significant that was. "In those days," she recalls, "I just went and did my gymnastics. It was just one more place to compete."

Track star Johnny Loaring, also of Windsor, a competitor in the 1936 Games, advised Ernie not to be overwhelmed by the "bigness" of it all. Her arrival in Melbourne was a shock. The women's compound was fenced; Ernie remembers watching the Russian team do their warm-ups, using the fence as a ballet bar. Their swan-like poise and grace impressed her.

By contrast, Ernie was ill prepared. She remembers, "We didn't even have a pianist for the floor routine." The Czechoslovakian pianist volunteered and accompanied Ernie with music provided just minutes before but there was no time to rehearse together.

In addition to the floor competition, Ernie's events included the balance beam, her favourite, followed closely by the vault. She represented Canada well, finishing less than a point behind the gold-medal winner, but did not medal.

Ernie's often wondered how different things might have been with just a little more training. The reality, is that a lone athlete without a team doesn't have much chance of winning a medal.

Gymnastics has been a major focus for most of Ernie's life. She graduated from Kennedy High School in 1956, and four years later, was one of two women to compete in the Olympic Games in Rome.

She went on to win five gold medals for the U.S. in the 1959 Pan-Am Games. After earning a degree in physical education and dance from Michigan State University, Ernie taught high school for five years, then returned to coaching at Michigan State. Coaching positions at other U.S. colleges, including the University of Florida followed.

At Florida, she worked with a young Elfie Shlagel, the former Canadian gymnast who is a sports broadcaster for NBC.

In 1977, Ernie became head coach for the U.S. gymnastics team. She has been inducted into the Canadian Hall of Fame, and may be one of Kennedy's most outstanding female athletes.

Ernie also serves on the Board of Directors for the International Hall of Fame. Now living in Las Vegas where she works in a physical therapy clinic, Ernie continues to be involved in gymnastics clubs.

The Canadian Gymnastics Federation invited her to the Sydney Games. Unable to attend, she watched the Games with interest from her home and was pleased to see one of her club members compete.

One of Ernie's clearest memories of her childhood in Windsor is practising her twists and flips in the vacant lot at the corner of Chilver Road and Tecumseh Road East, where Windsor Chapel Funeral Home is now located.

Although the U.S. has been her home for many years, Ernie's peers still call her 'the Canadian'.  The sight of the Maple Leaf being raised at the 2000 Games brought tears to her eyes. "It's something that's always a part of you," explains Ernie. "It's still my flag."

Ernie has been unable to attend any of her high school reunions but has vowed to make the next one. "I hear my picture is up on the wall at the shopping mall, " she says.  "I'll have to see it for myself."

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