Gymnast going to Commonwealths against all odds

MARK REASON
Last updated 07:46 20/07/2014

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It's 6.50 in the morning. Wee Courtney McGregor is wading through the oozing liquefaction. Ahead of her is the gym where she trains. Like Courtney, it's in need of repair. Don't expect Sport New Zealand to help out. They have no time for gymnasts. Courtney is a girl with golden ambitions, but as she trudges through the half-light, she is on her own.

No, that's not fair. New Zealand's best hope of a gymnastics medal at the Commonwealth Games has her wonderful family behind her. She has the remarkable Christchurch School of Gymnastics behind her. And she has the indomitable city of Christchurch behind her.

But the men in Auckland boxes do not care about Courtney. They pour taxpayers' money into vainglorious sporting projects, but if you are a poor family with a little girl who wants to take on the gymnastics world, don't bother. You will be broke within a year or two. The men in suits don't want to know you.

Top gymnasts start at the age of five or six. It is another four years before the coaches know if they have what it takes. Many girls are snapped by the demands of the training routine. Many parents find the journey too hard. It takes a strong family to go all the way.

Rusty McGregor, Courtney's father, says: "It's been an interesting journey with Courtney's gymnastics. There have been times when I've wondered what we were up to. I think back to after the earthquakes when only half the gym was operational and we only had walking access to it across a reserve [covered with liquefaction] as the QEII facility was fenced off.

"This also coincided with a period where she had a few injuries. Part of her hamstring came away from the pelvis, then she broke a bone in her hand followed by one in her foot. So we were driving across a munted city, to a half munted gym to pick up a kid who was training 25 hours a week with her arm in a cast. "People thought we were mad but Courtney was always keen to go to training to catch up with her mates and keep up her conditioning. If it wasn't for Avril, Joszi and the rest of the team at CSG it would not have been possible. Good old Canterbury resilience!" Avril is Avril Enslow, the CEO of the Christchurch School of Gymnastics. Joszi is Jozsef Ferencz, former international gymnast and ex head coach of the Romanian men's team. It is a remarkable partnership.

Avril, who will be a judge at the Glasgow Games, is the life force of the organisation. Somehow she runs a globally competitive gym with no money and a training facility brought to its knees by the Canterbury earthquake.

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Whereas countries like Australia and England get huge government grants for their gymnastic programmes, Avril and her colleagues rely on bottle drives, sausage sizzles and bingo, on pokie machines and the Christchurch City Classic Gymnastics Competition for their funding.

The Christchurch School of Gymnastics pays Ferencz's wages, even though, remarkably, all five of the girls in the Commonwealth Games team are from the Christchurch School of Gymnastics. They also have to pay Gymnastics New Zealand over $30,000 a year in membership and affiliation fees. When the girls competed at the World Cup and Pacific Rim Championships this year, the parents had to pay the coaches' expenses.

In return the Christchurch School of Gymnastics gets just about nothing. Gymnastics New Zealand has finally offered to pick up just under half of the two coaches' travel and accommodation expenses for the World Championships in October. But you wonder if even this trickle of money would have been released if McGregor hadn't finished fourth at the World Cup in Doha on vault or won silver at the Pacific Rim in Canada.

Doubtless Sport New Zealand and High Performance Sport will only clamber on the bandwagon if the miracle of Christchurch starts winning even more medals.

The time and money demanded of parents would exclude many families from the dream of nurturing the next Gabby Douglas, Mary Lou Retton, Nadia Comaneci, Olga Korbut or even Nikki Jenkins. The McGregor family will spend over $30,000 this year just on Courtney's gymnastic expenses, never mind the $20,000 it is costing to go as a family to Glasgow.

Ferencz says, "They have to spend a lot of money. There is no budget. You have to travel to learn, but many times we can't get away. It is hard to compete against Australia on these terms. New Zealand should pay more attention to gymnastics because it is the base of every sport. It gives you lifetime skills.

"Courtney's talent is in her motivation to become a world class gymnast. She is mentally strong. Her biggest ability is trusting the coaches. She will go for the unknown if I ask. She's kind of the leader in the team. She gives the others motivation." She could give a lot of young New Zealanders motivation. Courtney trains at least four hours a day and on Tuesday and Thursday she is in the gym from 7-10am and 4-8pm. There's no sugar in her diet and pizza is a foreign country.

"You get over it," she says. "Yes, there have been a few broken years, but that just comes with it. You have to trust the coaches. They know what we can do more than we do sometimes. Winning the medal in Canada [Pacific Rim] was just amazing. Now it's the Commonwealth Games and we are hoping to do really well as a team." And what a team. Courtney McGregor is the story today, but Charlotte Sullivan, Mackenzie Slee, Brittany Robertson and Anna Tempero have their own extraordinary tales. For a week the country will be right behind them, but where will we be when the girls really need our support?

These gymnasts and their families embody Christchurch resilience. New Zealand's sporting bodies and benefactors should give them a helping hand that does more than merely applaud.

- Sunday Star Times

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