Christchurch gymnast shooting for Commonwealth Games

22:23, Jun 08 2014
kyleab ellis
UPSIDEDOWN DOWNUNDER: Kyleab Ellis on the vault during the Australian National Championships on May 25. He won.

Gymnastics is one of those sports that Kiwis don't generally aspire to. When young boys kick anything (a ball, a sister or brother), a parent will herald that child's potential as an All Black. But for all the tumbling and climbing kids do, you will never hear a parent hope their child grows into a top-class gymnast. Especially their sons.

But that is the dream for 17-year-old Christchurch gymnast Kyleab Ellis (pronounced Caleb).

In the South Island at least, Ellis is the big fish in the little pond. He is the only male high-performance athlete at the Christchurch School of Gymnastics (CSG). There are five high performing girls, most of whom are likely to make the New Zealand team for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games next month but Ellis is on his own here.

There are 10 males competing for five spots in the New Zealand Commonwealth Games men's squad. Four train in America, five are in Auckland and there's Ellis in Christchurch.

Teams are expected to be announced within a day or two.

Ellis was at Burnside High School until recently. He left in Year 12.


"School and I didn't really get on," he says. He left to focus on his dream of making it big in gymnastics. That means at least 30 hours a week training in the only building left standing in the post- quake landscape of QEII Stadium.

His sport is officially called "artistic gymnastics" - short routines on six apparatus - floor, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and the high bar.

A brief overview: the floor routine is a series of as many tumbles as possible in 70 seconds. Ellis can perform six, the best are up there with six or seven. He describes pommel as "basically circles", holding himself aloft on the apparatus and swinging his legs.

"It's not as easy as it looks," he says. "As soon as you do something wrong or get off balance, it's hard to fix it further into the routine."

The rings require great strength and Ellis is still developing the muscles that help him here.

The parallel bars (his favourite) is a series of swings, balances, and releases that require co-ordination and concentration. The high bar sees the gymnast perform revolutions around the bar while they twist and turn until dismount. The vault is Ellis' strongest apparatus - he came first in the senior men's open in the Australian National Champs just a couple of weeks ago. He performed two vaults; a handspring layout and a Yurchenko - a "round-off flick-flack onto the vault, a crazy vault". Many skills are named after one of the greats of the sport. The Yurchenko was named after Soviet gymnast Natalia Yurchenko.

Ellis is at the youngest end of the men's open class. Male gymnasts don't tend to start peaking until around the age of 21, as muscles continue to develop and form. They can compete until about 30.

Ellis was born in Whakatane and moved to Nelson when he was 4. Both his parents were gymnastic coaches, so technically he can say he started in the gym when he was a baby.

His grandmother, Lynne Pask, (also a former gymnast) says Ellis could be found in a playpen with his brothers while their parents coached. His two brothers also did gymnastics, but pulled back when they hit their late teens, as is common before moving to the next level.

Kyleab says he can't remember the point at which he became truly devoted to the sport.

"I have no clue. Mum dragged me by the ear to the gym," he reckons.

Mum is Tracey Ellis, who also coaches at the CSG. She says she probably pushed him into gymnastics to begin with, but now she is happy to have found something that "keeps him off the streets."

"When it came to crunch time, Kyleab decided on gymnastics. He was a good all-rounder at sport but there is no time for anything else. That's the good thing about it, he doesn't have time for trouble. But it comes with a big expense."

It is fair to say money is not thrown at the sport. Tracey has already added $10,000 to her mortgage so far this year to help her son travel to big competitions in Canada and Australia. Fundraisers selling lamingtons and chocolate, and family and friends helped raise $1200 on a GiveALittle page, but there are other costs.

"I just think 'yes it's a big expense' but I already knew it would be like that and it doesn't matter what your child chooses to do - if they love it, you have to support it. It's a dream of anyone isn't it?

"He enjoys it so much. I asked what he wanted to do and he just kept saying he'd go back and go back and now he's at this stage. He'd rather spend time in the gym. I think he'd be there 24/7 if he could."

The CSG is broken and battered from the quakes. Some walls have been reinforced by steel and timber. Some of the minor cracks have been taped over (plenty of Cantabrians will be able to picture that look). Despite that, the popularity of gymnastics in Christchurch is on the rise again. On any typical day, little ones tumble and roll over the floor and in the foam pits, watched by enthusiastic coaches.

Avril Enslow, the CSG's chief executive and an international gymnastics judge, says the school opened in 1997 with 100 members. Just before the quakes, its roll had peaked at 1500. It lost more than half its pupils post-quake but is now back to 1200.

Enslow is one of two women whose enthusiasm keeps the place running. She is keen for the school to be part of a sports hub in the new CBD, with two other smaller gyms in the suburbs.

"We have to keep going. Some of these kids are on the road to Rio and we don't want to blow their chances," she says.

The annual turnover of the school is $1 million but three- quarters of that goes on coaches' salaries. Outside funding comes in the form of grants but only for equipment, rather than athletes' travel. The cost for an overseas trip is up to $6000 and the coaches' travel costs must also be met by fundraising.

The time commitment is just one reason promising gymnasts pull out before they hit the next level. It is a big ask for the kids and their family. Training can be six days a week, morning and afternoon. Some of the high performance girls here go to correspondence school or are home schooled to make use of the downtime.

Enslow reckons Ellis will mould into a "wonderful young athlete".

"He's got a chance," she says. "He's got a good future. His commitment is huge."

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Meanwhile, for Ellis, gymnastics takes 30 hours a week, including warming up, strength training, conditioning, weights and the taping up of various joints and stress areas before the real work can start.

It comes at a physical cost, which is another reason Kiwi parents are averse to high-level gymnastics. It's OK to watch your child tumble into the foam pits but quite another to watch them bent into the shape of a pretzel while their joints are still growing.

Ellis has had a stress fracture in his back, one in his wrist, a rotator cuff injury, a bruised heel and he is "continuously" knocking himself out. Not to mention all the minor bumps and bruises.

He has to skip parties and usual teen hi-jinks. He says most of his friends know not to bother with invites in any case. He must sleep, rest and recover to build his mind and body.

His coach is Toby Levine, a former British gymnast. Levine first coached Ellis in Nelson in 2005, various relocations parted them, but now they work together at the CSG.

"It's funny really," Levine says. "It's that age of 11 to 16, it's boys to men. I was glad to see he'd stuck around."

Levine says the small community of New Zealand gymnasts is growing but typically shows a drop off, particularly for males, after the age of 16 when they start to discover interests outside training rooms.

"And it is a time-consuming sport. Essentially, it's six sports in one. Things are changing. It used to be all the Eastern bloc countries that were unbeatable. Then China took over. It's the countries with tight regimes, but now athletes can be specialists in one app (apparatus) rather than all of them.

"Vault is going well for Kyleab. He is the most senior gymnast in the South Island but while the girls have each other to compete against, his closest opponents are elsewhere."

If Ellis misses out on a Commonwealth spot, the World Championships are in China in October and the Rio Olympics are a real prospect for 2016.

What gives Ellis a sporting chance is being at the very young end of his class. He has time to mature, learn and grow those muscles. What cannot be taught, however, is ambition and hunger.

Levine says Ellis comes in wanting to try the more adventurous moves.

"He watches YouTube clips and then comes in and says he wants to try it. If there's one thing I can say about him, it's that he likes the big tricks.'

The Press