Kristina Vaculik grabs a long rope that hangs from the high ceiling at the Gemini Gymnastics Club, a converted hangar at the Oshawa Airport. She reaches rapidly higher, curls her legs around the rope and swiftly climbs to the ceiling and down again.
Such conditioning exercises go on for an hour to kick off her six-hour training day. She does double leg lifts while hanging from a ladder affixed to the wall. There is planking, jumping and stretching into full splits. She hangs and lifts her muscular 5-foot-2 frame from bars. She folds her body in half at the waist from the handstand position and suspends her legs in wide, mid-air splits. She performs the feat repeatedly, feet never touching the floor.
The 19-year-old was key in helping Canada earn an Olympic berth for the women’s artistic gymnastics team. Now she aims to be one of the five picked to compete on the team, starting this week at the Canadian gymnastics championships in Regina.
Vaculik was a reserve when Canada qualified two individual spots for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but she gave it up to have elbow surgery. After a lengthy layoff and one season at Stanford University, she has returned home to train under Elena Davydova, a former Soviet gymnast with daring skills who beat Romanian star Nadia Comaneci for all-round gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Davydova recognized a familiar ambition in Vaculik when she began coaching her at nine. The child forever sought tougher skills. Vaculik had started in soccer, but rather than chasing the ball like her teammates, she used the field to test flips and cartwheels.
“Kristina is similar to what I was like as a girl in Russia,” Davydova, who moved to Canada in 1991, said with a laugh. “My mom wanted me to do piano, and I would run away from it to do gymnastics. We are both perfectionists looking for top results.”
As a gymnast, Davydova performed some moves never done by a female, and even invented some. Her innovative style heading into the 1980 Olympics prompted Comaneci’s legendary coach, Bela Karolyi, to predict she would be Comaneci’s top rival for the Olympic title.
“When I was young, first starting with Elena, I didn’t realize how significant it was that she was an Olympic champion,” said Vaculik, a three-time Canadian all-round champ. “But now that I’ve put so much dedication into training for the Olympics, I have a new appreciation for what she accomplished.”
Vaculik moves about the gym with professionalism beyond her years. She meticulously works her beam routine on a long piece of tape stuck to a floor mat before climbing onto the apparatus. Artistry is Vaculik’s strength. Davydova demonstrates posture corrections, showing flashes of the 19-year-old who won Olympic gold 32 years ago.
They prepared Vaculik thoroughly for Beijing and were heartbroken when Nansy Damianova and Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs were given Canada’s spots. Some felt that the then 15-year-old Vaculik was the nation’s top all-round gymnast.
“She could have felt really negative about it,” Davydova said, “angry about the injury and bitter about the selection system that was in place back then, but she didn’t, and I respect her for taking the best of that experience. She didn’t think about how hard that training was and say, ‘Oh, I’m not going through that again.’ She wanted it even more.”
Vaculik took six months off to heal the elbow and then needed to relearn many skills. Aiming for a career in sports medicine, she chose to attend Stanford.
“I have never had anyone at Stanford go from college gymnastics to the Olympics,” Stanford coach Kristen Smyth said. “It’s very difficult and impressive. In college, you have 13 girls training with you, and now she’s motivating herself with Elena. It’s challenging mentally, but if anyone can do it, it’s Kristina.”
Vaculik could train only 20 hours a week in college, and the degree of difficulty in competitions was far less than in the Olympics. So she returned to Davydova to enhance her training to compete internationally again. She will return to Stanford after the London Games.
“I didn’t know if I could make it back internationally, to be honest,” Vaculik said. “But competing with a team to accomplish one goal was inspiring. I brought that experience back to the Canadian team and it was a big factor pulling us together at the London Olympic trials.”
This week’s nationals will help choose gymnasts to attend a final Olympic selection camp, June 24-28 in Gatineau, Que. Canada has also earned a single berth for a male artistic gymnast and a women’s rhythmic gymnastics team.
“The last Olympic round,” Vaculik said, “Canada didn’t qualify a women’s artistic team, but now we’re one to be reckoned with. It’s good for other younger Canadian girls coming up to see – we’re a force in gymnastics now.”