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