Sunday, September 6, 2015

In Conversation With: Allana Slater (Part 2)

"I remember buying these gifts that this man was buying for his family... and I couldn't believe nobody else had offered. I was just a competitor who felt for another competitor, and wanted him to be able to share his joy and experiences with his family."

It's so unfortunate you ladies missed the team final in Sydney, but you had better luck 4 years later in Athens --

Well they did take 8 teams in Athens, where Sydney only took 6.

Yes, very true! Because it was so heartbreaking seeing you guys come 7th at home. 

But, theoretically, we did make team finals because of the disqualification to China. We're now 6th, they lost the bronze so we moved up to 6th. It's actually in the book!

Oh yes, the DQ!

I even received a certificate from the IOC congratulating me for coming 8th in floor finals because I was first reserve. I 'officially' made the final because of Dong Fangxiao being too young and getting disqualified.

Some interesting mail for you! So in that four year period, then, was there an overhaul of the approach to training, or an emphasis on new things to ensure the best possible lineup could hit when it counted?

Not really, we trained pretty similar. But there was a big increase in training hours at camp between 2002 and 2004. We started doing three sessions a day when we were at camp, I think Athens camp was up to 50 hours a week at our peak that year. Other years it was 42, 44 hours a week.

We did a lot of work on physical conditioning, but for me my training program didn't really change much during my career. As a younger gymnast the big focus was numbers, hitting routines and good quality. Pre-Sydney I did maybe 20 vaults a session whereas pre-Athens it was more like 15 vaults a session. But the numbers are what gives you the confidence. In the leadup to Athens the focus was execution, sticking landings and skill combinations, all so big in the '04 code.

So let's move onto Athens for a little bit. You did have your Sydney teammate Lisa Skinner with you, did that make the journey a little easier for you, and then the competition itself?

I think it just meant I had a familiar face, a friend, someone who'd experienced Sydney with me. And I was delighted when she came back. She was my best friend on the team. At camp we were always paired together, we roomed together when we travelled, and we had a really wonderful friendship. I couldn't have shared that experience with a better person.

She always kept me nice and relaxed on the competition floor. We knew eachother's little quirks, when we wanted to talk, when we wanted to be quiet, when we needed support, I was lucky to have someone like that on the team. She knew exactly how I liked the bars prepared! In all-around I said, "Can I have Lisa come down and prepare the bars for me?!" And that was the perfect training relationship and competitive relationship. And friendship.

 Photo by

Did Peggy and the other coaches find with you two older girls that, having been around the traps a bit, they were more reassured, maybe didn't have to supervise you as much? Or did you feel you really had to lead by example?

When we got to Athens, two of us had already been to an Olympics, so we knew what the whole Village was about. It didn't really grab our attention, we were like "Yup, village, international zone, yup, yup, get to those later." because it then wasn't a distraction for you. The massive food hall wasn't daunting. You just got on and did what you needed to do because you'd experienced the excitement of it before. We were then able to help the younger girls who were new to that environment to adjust, and not worry about all the other athletes and what's going on or the pressure, just focussing on what we needed to do. There was plenty of time for all that after the competition. So I think that was reassuring for the coaches - that there was 2 girls old enough and mature enough to get on with the job, once you got to the gym not be phased by equipment changes or the other athletes there. And of course helped out the younger girls with that.

I bet they thought you were pretty great "big sisters". 

I hope so! You've got to know what each girl's like, but you've still got to let them experience some of the excitement. We still went through that excitement with them, but you knew how to keep it in check. But we had a blast, we went to lots of events, and still made sure we experienced the Olympic Games!

And have you kept any souvenirs or memorabilia from either of the Games, ones that bring back the most fond memories?

Oh of course, I still have all my Olympic gear. I'm walking through my house now going, "Oh my gosh, how many boxes of memorabilia do I have?! I have so much stuff!" (Laughs) I collected Olympic pins, so I have a very precious pin collection from Sydney and Athens and from Commonwealth Games, pins you were able to get from athletes. I remember one of the volunteers in Sydney gave me one of the Olympic ring pins off their hat to trade for one of the Australian team pins which I think was the best trade ever, because I now had a pin that was just the Olympic rings so that's really precious to me.

I have my diary that I wrote in Athens, that brings back a lot of the memories because I was writing it 'in the moment' of what I was feeling. Sometimes it's nice to go back and read that and remind yourself - a decade later you forget all those details. And to share it, too. My husband Scott didn't really follow sport during the time of my career, so I think it's important for them to get to understand who you are as a person and how those experiences shaped you. It's nice to share that with him. Maybe down the track, if we have children, it might be nice for them to read about your thoughts and feelings as an athlete.

So those are the precious memorabilia I have - memories, photos, diary and pin.

I am sure you will have many, many amazing stories to tell down the track, I have zero doubt!

You forget, really, until you start talking to someone and it all comes back.

 I was talking to my mum the other day. I remembered one day when our parents could come in and visit the athlete's village in Sydney. So we went 'round the village and to the shop and we got this plate that there were only 400 of, that was only being sold that day. We went to buy one and I remember seeing this man, a competitor, buying presents for his family. But when he got to the cash register he didn't have enough to pay. And I just thought, "This poor man. He's tried really hard, he's got to the Olympic Games, clearly trained his entire life to get here and he can't afford a few souvenirs because in his country he doesn't get endorsements or government sponsorship, I mean maybe he's funded his way here for all I know?" I remember turning to my mum and saying, "I'll pay for it." So we told the cashier we'd pay for it. And the cashier just looked at us. But we said, "No no, it's fine, we'll pay for it." So I remember buying these gifts that this man was buying for his family... and I couldn't believe nobody else had offered, there were hundreds of other people standing there. I was just a competitor who felt for another competitor, and wanted him to be able to share his joy and experiences with his family.

So those are the little stories you forget about until you're reminded, and you think "Oh my gosh! Now I remember that that happened!" but it was such an Olympic value that's been ingrained into me.

And of course he'll possibly one day be sitting with his children, and looking at his Olympic gifts, and saying "Now, there was this red-headed Australian girl who helped me buy this...!"

That's it, that's it! "She was just a really generous young girl, 16 back then, about your age!" But that's the spirit of the Olympic Games. For me it was all about sharing and giving, but that's also what I was raised to be in my household by my mum and my dad. So that's just a little story that shows who I am, but you forget about those 'little' things. To me it wasn't a big deal, it was just something you do to help people.

A very nice Random Act of Kindness!

Exactly - an act of kindness can go a long way. And it can change someone's life.

"I was so definite about what I wanted but I couldn't put it into words. "I'll know when I hear it." The moment that El Tango De Roxanne came on I was just hooked... you compete on a twelve-by-twelve floor but your performance has to be bigger than that."

Your beautiful 'Tango de Roxanne' floor routine that we saw in both the Athens team final and AA final is still to this day a favourite for a lot of fans, not just for that period but for all time. You're on a lot of Top 10 lists. Can you remember much about how you went about creating it with [rhythmic choreographer] Lisa Bradley, and what was your favourite part of performing it?

I'd always had a little bit of say in my music, but I remember post-Sydney saying, "Please, can you let me choose my music?" because I'd done ballet classes when I was young, and still did private ones up until I was about 16 at home, and we always worked on that Interpretation Of The Music. Ballet teaches are, you know, the masters of interpreting emotions through music. So I remember saying "I want something that's mature." (Laughs) All of 16 years of me! And, "I want to be able to give a performance that's something that I can own. Something that's me. Something that I can become a character in." And I went to this well-known CD store - you know, back when CDs were all the rage, when you actually had to go into a shop to listen to music! - and I just remember hours with Lisa Bradley. I went to her house and went through her entire music collection, but we just couldn't find something that was the perfect tone. I didn't want something too heavy or dominating but with a bit of ebb and flow. 

 I knew Moulin Rouge was coming out and I thought "I really want to listen to that soundtrack", I think it had only just been released... And you listen to the first 8 bars (if you're lucky) and you're just like "No... no... no...!" and my mum would say "How do you know?" and I was like, "You just know." I was so definite about what I wanted but I couldn't put it into words. "I'll know when I hear it." So I was listening to the Moulin Rouge soundtrack and the moment that El Tango De Roxanne came on I was just hooked. I could hear how it was building, and how "I could take this bit out and put it with that bit." and in my mind i already had this character building... and I hadn't even seen the movie yet! So I'd chosen my music and then I went and watched the movie. And learning what it was about I understood, how it was pushing the boundaries a little bit because it was about this courtesan in the 1900s in this mystical world of Paris, this whole love triangle. And I thought "How am I really going to put that out onto the floor?" and it was going to push boundaries with what I was doing in my dance form.

I chose that music because it struck a chord with me. Cutting it was hard. I trained with words in my music because I couldn't even get them taken out, we didn't know if we could. Peggy sent it to America to get it re-orchestrated. It was a very long process to get this floor music but we were going to get it! So I went to Lisa Bradley, who's just an incredible choreographer, and she already had sort of a routine in mind and we had to see if it matched up. Some things we had to change, my arms just weren't long enough to get into some of the positions! But she came up with this piece and it was new, it was fresh, it was different. It was a little bit of the rhythmic world coming in, in terms of dance and telling a complete story.

For me, the favourite part was that every time I performed it I did it a little bit better. In that 4 years my maturity changed, as a person and as an athlete. Me performing it in 2001 is very different to me performing it in 2004. There's a maturity that you gain into your 20s, a performance value that you just don't have when you're 17. There were favourite parts that had been taken out, then put back in, then taken out. I remember there was this one move right before my last tumble that for me was the crux of the routine that displayed what it was meant to mean and I was like "I am going to put this bit of choreogaphy back in." so we worked around it at training camp with Lisa and we got it in. It was just this movement that really symbolised that you were a mature athlete, I was running my hands down my body and going into a really strong pose right before the end. And I was determined, "I am grown up, I'm here but I can still do it." And then still portraying the sensitivity that was in that Moulin Rouge piece.

And I think it was a very good example of, when you're talking to gymnasts and trying to explain the idea of "engaging the audience and engaging the judges". There are WAIS gymnasts who have come after you, too, who really sell it. From eye contact to head-to-toe, to well-selected music that they work with. I think all that can really make a routine. And I would say that's why your routine is on so many people's favourites lists, the music selection and that well-performed choreography and the total engagement that you brought to it.

Absolutely. And for me, the performance value was so important. Yes, the judges are marking you, but for me it was all about the audience. Yes, you compete on a twelve-by-twelve floor but your performance has to be bigger than that. You have to make eye contact with the crowd. You look at the singers and dancers that are out there, and the stage performers, you watch what they do and he way they engage, and I wanted to bring something special like that. Pre-Sydney I used to wink at the judges, that was my thing to try and draw them in.

But then you grow and get something more mature, and you can't just wink at the judges your whole life! This was a routine that wasn't all about smiling, but it was about being almost playful in your expressions and tantalising, "I'm going to engage you with my expression and my eyes and look at you, but no I'm not! And now I'm going to do a move that's coy and shy because it's a tango piece. " The tango is all about playfulness and just putting your spirit out there. So I just tried to engage the judges and the crowd and draw them in with me.

 That's what's so hard to express about artistry, for young athletes to really understand. There's so many deductions now for artistry but it's hard for them to understand the concept of artistry when they're really young. It's not just smiling at the judges or looking really happy and doing bigger movements. It's about a character, it's about portraying something, and that's hard to get people to do. But Australia is very good at it! We've always been very good at it. Girls now have brilliant artistry, through the work of Lisa Bradley and Stacey Umeh.

Personally, I was hoping after your all-around performance of the routine that you were going to get a phone call from Baz Luhrmann! Honestly! Saying, you know, "Thank you so much for your wonderful interpretation of this song from my film!"

That would have been lovely! (Laughs)

Because we have had plenty of gymnasts use music from soundtracks before, and yours was great as a standalone routine as well as an interpretation of the film it was from.

 Image courtesy

It was evocative. And although gymnasts will do past gymnasts' music, as far as I know nobody has used that music since or at least done it as well as you did. It was so one-of-a-kind.

Aww, thank you! Well, there was one girl who competed in the same round as us in qualification, from South Africa, and she had the same kind of music as me.


And I was like "Ohhh! Oh, poor thing!"

Haha. "Yeeeah... but I'm gonna wipe the floor with you so I don't feel too bad!"

I mean, it is hard. I had Omelianchik's Ballet Russe music. And you're learning it and thinking "I need to make this my own. I can't copy but I need to make it my own." And you just try. It's hard to have somebody else's floor music and share the floor with them.

Full disclosure, I remember that particular routine of yours so well because when I was doing gymnastics at the time I used to try and copy your actual choreo. I loved all of the moves.

Really? Aww! I think it's nice when people try and copy it! I used to try and copy the girls in the gym when I was little, I knew all their choreography. It's ridiculous, but I have a little knack for remembering choreography. I still remember all of my floor routines. It's a bit sad!

No, not at all!

And interestingly... for our wedding, my husband and I learned a tango piece to my floor music. The exact cut.


Yeah, we did! We came in and did a little character building piece at the beginning, and then danced to my floor music. I thought that would be a really nice surprise for my coaches. I went from performing the tango by myself - you know, the tango's a partner piece of course! - to tangoing with my partner. And hats off to him because he's not a natural dancer! But we danced well together, we learned this tango-slash-Argentinian-tango and I had an absolute ball.

What a wonderful journey for that music! And for you guys!

It came full circle! And now that music means something to him as well. And I mean, it wasn't our official 'first dance', but I really wanted to use it. So we did it as an extra piece.

"I think social media does so well for athletes these days, you can promote yourself and catch the eye of a sponsor. It's very hard when you're 20 but look 16 with the support of just a car dealership. No deals came around for me. There are mortgages that only exist because of gymnastics careers."

Speaking of maturing in your gymnastics and moving into adulthood... a little bit of a tangent here. I used to work in a bookstore, and one day I stumbled on the book "Raising Champions", where parents of elite athletes talked about their experiences, and your mother Barbara (as well as Phil Rizzo's mum!) had contributed a chapter. In it she describes a moment in about 2001, 2002, where you were both watching a tennis match on tv, and I think it was Mark Phillippousis, and they'd described him finishing in the top 10 in the world and getting all these sponsorship deals. She said you turned to her and said, "But Mum, I made 9th in the world too. And I've got nothing." Can you talk a little bit about your experiences with sponsorship and funding while training, esepcially as you got a bit older and had to look at becoming more self-sufficient? 

Well I was a 'test case', really, because I was one of the first to keep going past 18 years old - excluding Lisa Skinner obviously. So it was all  bit trial and error, to know what a good balance was for an adult athlete. If you're the only person in a training centre or team who's of age, or over age, it's hard to keep that balance for the coaches. But the more athletes stay on the easier that balance can get for them. So I actually didn't work, because they thought that would be best for me when I was training so I could be solely focussed on it. I wasn't going to do Year 12 because I was travelling too much to sit my exams - I was going to have to sit them in Hungary when I was at the World Championships and obviously that wasn't going to happen!

So I didn't work. I did a small speaker's circuit which makes a little bit of money, but not a lot. My mum was my sole supporter, financially. Sponsorships were just non-existent back then, no matter how much you spoke to people. They just weren't quite willing to put their money into athletes unless you were super big, like Ian Thorpe or a major sport like AFL, tennis, golf.  Everything's moving forward these days, as it should. But to be in that era was hard, when you're not working you're not getting quite enough to support yourself but you were training so much you didn't have time to work.

You think, "How am I going to get sponsorship?" We really did try. We tried to go down the beauty avenue, you know, you're a young female so maybe makeup or hair products. But you're competing with all the models and the actresses with those. So it was certainly a hard pocket to be in. I had a very generous man here in Perth at McInerny Ford, he loaned a car to me so I didn't have to buy one. So that was a huge appreciation on my behalf to him and his company. Other than that there was none.

 I remember getting a phonecall recently from an athlete who's in a different sport, and she called me because she got some offers and was looking for a manager. So she asked me what I did about a manager and I said "I didn't have one. My mum and I just looked after it." Neither of us were managers and we didn't have a social media platform to try and put yourself out there and try to gain a profile. I think social media does so well for athletes these days, you can promote yourself and catch the eye of a sponsor. It's very hard when you're 20 but look 16 with the support of just a car dealership, for me there was no financial sponsorship.

Even after the back-to-back Commonwealth Games team golds, that amazing Worlds team bronze in 2003, those results that made a few newspapers, there was still nothing that came your way? 

No. I never had any major endorsements during my career. Anything I did was organised by my mum and myself, any promotions were mostly for AIS and WAIS. I did quite a bit promoting WAIS. Any of that I did, though, was as goodwill. I did do Dolly Magazine's "Dream And Achieve" program, where you went into schools and made motivational speeches. You got a little bit of money for that.

But overall I guess it wasn't a big focus of mine, it wasn't something I felt that I had to do - get sponsorships and endorsements. It was like the "icing on the cake" side of things, like being recognised or being able to inspire people and realising you've inspired people. It would've been lovely to have the financial support, but no, no deals came around for myself. It would have been a huge stress off my mum's shoulders, being a widow and supporting her child through a sport. There are, you know, mortgages that only exist because of gymnastics careers. She did it because she loved me and wanted me to follow my dreams. And c'est la vie. That's life. You keep going forward. You can't get upset that you don't get endorsement deals if you're doing the sport just because you love it. I loved going to the gym, and I loved training, I loved gymnastics.

You retired from gymnastics in 2005, not long before the World Championships in Melbourne. At that Worlds, Australia got its first major all-around medal with Monette Russo's bronze. Was there a feeling of bittersweetness there for you? Or did you think, "You know what, this was the right time to step away. This new generation's in good hands."

I did want to continue for 2 years post-Olympics but sometimes your body just doesn't agree with you. I still had a few injuries. My ankles... I mean... I didn't really know if I was ever going to be able to do floor again. Well, certainly not that year anyway. It was always going to be a question mark with my surgeon as to whether I was going to be able to do it again. I had a back injury as well. Sometimes you've just got to accept that your body says no. And I had an amazing opportunity presented to me to commentate the [2006] Commonwealth Games for the host broadcaster. And I thought "I guess this is the right time?" Because the last thing any performer wants to do is fizzle out, to try to continue and just never really do anything else. I was going off to play an extra on "Stick It", and it kind of just felt right.

Would I have loved to have continued on and competed a Worlds and Commonwealth Games in Australia? Absolutely. But sometimes you just have to accept your limits, and that's what I did. I had an amazing opportunity during Worlds to be in the Channel 7 broadcasting van when Monette was competing, and helping with the broadcasting and feeling that excitement. Then running from the van to the venue to see Monette receive her all-around medal! Monette had been one of the up-and-comers into Athens and I felt pride, because I'd been team captain on a couple of teams she'd been on and got to see her shine. A little bittersweet that it happened not long after I finished, but she was a great gymnast and a great performer, I'd worked with her very closely and I was so extremely proud of her.

It's because of trailblazers like you and Lisa Skinner that she was able to do it at all, there's certainly some credit to you in there.

I think that's important. You look at the 1992 generation,  in '91 we came 6th in the world in Indianapolis and qualified our first team [final] in '92. I had three girls training in our program that were on the Olympic team and for me that was inspirational. With each generation you get more inspired and hope that you can keep upping the achievements.

We have had past Sydney and Athens Olympians like Lisa Mason and Catalina Ponor making impressive comebacks after retirement. Is there definitely no possibility of you pulling a leo back on and making a go of it? We couldn't tempt you?

(Laughs) I have a lot of gymnastics dreams! If my body still loved me enough to let me do it I probably would. But I'll stay at the judges' table and enjoy it from the sidelines. Sometimes in my dreams I'm still out there! And I look at those athletes from my generation coming back and I just think they're incredible people. Lisa Mason's just going from strength to strength, and Catalina's always been a unique and intriguing gymnast and it's so great to see her back. And Chusovitina is the benchmark for gymnastics, doing the skills she is doing, being at that level and that age she is, that's just incredible.

I know! I'm 28 and I look at them and think "Nope, I sure couldn't, so more power to them!"

I remember when Bounce opened here, I went. I could still do a couple of things but wow, did I hurt afterwards! I couldn't go up stairs, I was pretty sore! I was like, "Oh yeah, I can totally do a double front half out off the tramp, nope, OWCH OWWWCH!" But also got to find out how incredibly uncoordinated my husband is on them! We had a ball though.

Khorkina was a little bit scary. But, at the same time, don't under-estimate a little redheaded Australian! People are trying to get up on the beam, you know, and it was my turn! So I front-saulted over the top of her hands!

So by way of wrapping up, I now have a bit of a fun Lightning Round for you! I'm going to give you the name of a gymnast from during your career, I'd love to hear a memory or a description or even just a phrase that stands out from your time competing with them:

Beth Tweddle:

Post-2000 I knew she was going to be amazing, an up-and-coming bar worker. Incredible bar connections. Innovative, and inspirational to GB gymnastics.

Did you get to chat much during 2002 Commonwealths or at Athens?

Not really... I first got to know Beth post-Sydney at the World Cup in Stuttgart, and she was this new, green, fresh-eyed gymnast coming out of GB that was super talented and then just went from strength to strength. Even post-2004, she and Amanda Kirby came up with the most innovative bar connections the world's ever seen. And she had several different versions of her routine that she could perform, A-B-C-D-E and Z, and she knew exactly where she was all the time and how she was going to get out of a small mistake and still make it look like an intentional part of the routine. I think that's the mark of a very very special gymnast.

Catalina Ponor:

She was artistic. Incredibly strong on beam and floor. On beam it was just... numbers. All the time. Consistent. Up-down-up-down. Intention when she trained, intention when she competed. And a real performer.

You were both in the beam final in Athens. Did her work ethic, or her approach to competing on beam, influence you at all? Did you take anything from when you were watching her?

I think at the time you're so involved in what you're doing you don't really watch for that. I certainly noticed more after retiring and watching her. But, you know, I watched the Romanians train for years and they're just machines. They do routine after routine, and they hit the routines, and it's no fuss. You get on with the job.  That's what makes consistency and that's why she was beam champion.

I'm so fascinated to see her come back some... what, twelve years after that beam win?

I really hope she makes it for Worlds! And Izbasa as well.

Elena Zamolodchikova (AGB: And sidenote, I did you see you both judging at 2010 Pacific Rim!)

Yes! She has got a really lovely personality. Very friendly, very giving.

After she become Olympic champion on floor, we were at the Stuttgart World Cup not long after. And it was back when they had the top 2 in the final repeat their routine, and you went on the lift thing to find out which of them had won--

Oh yes, the "super final"!

-- The Super Final!

So I remember getting to floor, and I had equalled her score in the qualification so I was like "OhmygodddddIequalledtheOlympicChampiononflooooor!", I was so excited! To go out and perform the second round with her was incredible. So here I was going, "I can do this. I can do a second routine within fifteen minutes, I'm gonna be fine!" It was just so matter of fact with her, she was just (clicks fingers), incredible. And I loved her style. She had her own unique style and you know that was her from her movements.

So we finished floor finals, did the super final, and then we had bars final straight away. We were both in bar final. Then there were actually 3 of us in that super final because there was a tie and they couldn't seperate us. Right before we came out for bars she came over to me and said, "You must have!" and she gave me dark chocolate and coffee. (adopts a slight Russian accent) "Thees you must have, to be ebble to do Super Final! Big workload!" So she gave me those to give me the energy to perform because obviously I'd never been in a Super Final before and it was new to me. And then I went on to win. So that was pretty exciting for me - maybe it was that dark chocolate!

Brilliant! I love it!

That was the generosity of her nature. She wanted everybody to always compete to their best. And then it was whomever was best on the day. It was never a fight or anything like that, it was always "Can I just do something...?" She was very giving as an athlete.

Trudy McIntosh

Oh, Pocket Rocket! Her floor and beam were just ridiculous. Amazing.  She was fantastic under pressure. She was one of my really good friends when we travelled, and we travelled a lot together. And we had so many laughs, I couldn't think of the number of laughs that we've had and shared over our career. Truly a very good friend.

Svetlana Khorkina

Ha! I knew this one was coming!

My coach Nikolai actually coached her when she was young, so he knew her quite well. So I think I got a little 'in' that way. But let me tell ya, if she stares you down the corner for a tumbling row, you let her have it!

She was a little bit scary. But, at the same time, don't under-estimate a little redheaded Australian! People are trying to get up on the beam, you know, and it was my turn! I'd been waiting a long time! So I front-saulted over the top of her hands! (Laughs)


Once you've been out there a long time you get to know each other really well. And she was Svetlana Khorkina. But she also, sometimes, could show her generosity. She'd say (adopts slight Russian accent again) "No no no! Eet's Allunna's turn!"


So we looked out for eachother in that competitive environment. I don't know what it's like now. But back then when you had one beam and 40 girls trying to warm up at qualifications for World Cup, you know, once you had been out there a while you gained respect. And that's what I loved about all the competitors at that time. It was always respectful in the training gym and at the competition hall and afterwards.   

And that's what I love about gymnastics. The media like to spin it so public perception is always, "Oh, it's competitive to the point I bet it's really catty!" but I wish sometimes broadcasts would show more sideline moments like that. There really is great diplomacy and sportsmanship in gymnastics, because you train and compete alongside each other all the time, but we don't always get to see it.

I agree! You have a great respect for one another. You all know how hard you've trained and worked to get here. You all know how hard it is to travel and compete, travel and compete, travel and compete, and you just want everybody to have a good day. You don't want to win by default, nobody does. You want to go out there and perform, and whoever's best on the day is best on the day. It could be anybody. Could be Number 1 in the world, could be Number Twenty in the world. You just want everybody to do their best. And for me that's what the experience was always like. You always wanted everybody to perform well, and be willing to say "Hey, congratulations! That was really good!

I really do wish more of that got shown. I loved seeing Simone Biles, Number One, World Champion, cheer for Claudia Fragapane at the American Cup, and cheering for other girls at Worlds.

And you know what? The people who understand you the best in the world are your competitors. You're all training hard and all aiming for the same goals. Some people achieve it and some people don't. But at the end of the day you've all trained hard and have a great respect for eachother.

Very well put. And a perfect note to finish on. Allana Slater, thank you so much for your time.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

In Conversation With: Allana Slater (Part 1)

"For me, the Olympic movement is everything. It's what shapes who I am beause of the journey that I went on. They're the values that I live by."

Two Oympic Games. Two Commonwealth Games. Multiple World Championships and World Cups. Multiple state and national championships. A brief stint in the commentary box. A judge, a motivational speaker, a physiotherapist, a student, a wife, a daughter, a friend...

When I call Allana Slater one Sunday evening in August, to reflect on her glittering career as an Australian gymnastics trailblazer, these are just some of the memories she is packing up and shifting as part of her latest house move. As warm and engaging to speak with as she was each time she took to the floor mat,  I felt very privileged to have just over 90 minutes to talk about the changes and challenges of such a unique life, notably those changes and challenges that have arisen in the 15 years since the Sydney Olympic Games.

This is Part 1 of that interview.

AGB: So, by way of introduction, tell us a little about where you're at right now. I know you were married not long ago, and have had some interesting career transitions....!

AS: Gosh, well so much has changed in the last couple of years! I got married in 2013, and that was a wonderful day obviously, full of wonderful gymnastics family and my husband's family and lots of our joint friends which was just very special. Went to uni after retiring and got my physiotherapy degree, then 3 years out decided I would go it on my own - have a mobile physiotherapy service - whilst I started my studies for a Masters of Sonography (diagnostic ulstrasound), and go into the radiography/radiology medical imaging industry. I'm now a sonographer with a private company here in WA, I've been doing it for about ten months now, and that forms part of a traineeship. So within the traineeship you still continue your uni degree, and I have two years left... and I just can't wait! I'm really loving this career change for myself!

I still keep the mobile physiotherapy up, but I'm also Vice-President of the West Australian Olympic Council, so very involved in the Olympic movement here in WA. With one year out from Rio we're obviously very focussed on building our fundraising component, I don't think people realise just how much it is to get your athletes there (not just gymnastics obviously). It's a huge fundraising target so we're relying on the people in our state to be giving, and you step back from your own sport and really look at the bigger picture. For me, the Olympic movement is everything. It's what shapes who I am beause of the journey that I went on. They're the values that I live by.

It sounds like you're having a whale of a time! For someone to come out the other side of a very intense but prestigous sporting career, to be occupied and pursuing things they love... that's really wonderful to hear, as someone who followed that career and was so inspired by it. To know they're in a good place. 

There are lot of highlighted cases of athletes not doing well after retirement. It isn't easy. You have to have the support around you. I had my mum, who was an amazing influence on my life, without her I don't think I would be so well-adjusted. She kept me well-adjusted when I was training, she also kept me well-adjusted once I retired, kept me focussed. I had to do mature-age student entry into university because I didn't do year 12. It took a little bit of extra effort, not going the 'normal' route. I had to sit a mature age student exam, and doubts started creeping in: Am I smart enough? It's been years since I studied, what have I missed out on not doing year 12? Then once you get into university you just find your way like everybody else does.

There were difficult days, coming out of an extreme routine. Every day, every week being the same for years. It was definitely a challenge, finding a new routine. And your friends have moved on from school, friends from your sport might have moved on, not being in the age of Facebook definitely made it difficult to stay in touch... But at the same time you make new friends, in university and the workplace, and accept that you start working a different way in your life and then joining the 'normal' pathway of life, getting married, getting a house, having children, all that sort of stuff.

Well for anyone whose life was really anything but 'normal', I think it's fantastic to hear how your mum helped keep you grounded, and I will touch on that more a bit later. And are you still judging as well? 


Because I did see you judging as recently as 2015 Nationals.

Yes, only at national level. I've been doing it since 2006, since basically the birth of the 'open' code. So that's been really cool. I love judging. I couldn't see anything better to do than transition into judging. Lots of people see it as taking, but I see it as rewarding. Because you sit there, and someone does something beautifully and magnificently, and you just go, "I couldn't have seen that done any better!", and you just enjoy the performance. For me it's all about seeing the love and passion on the athlete's face, and watching beautiful gymnastics.

I think that's so great! And a lot of gymnasts who have gone into judging have felt the same. Coaching too - it's their way of giving back.

Absolutely. And also you can use what you went through. Because you know what the athletes are experiencing so you can have a greater understanding. If you're a coach, you have an understanding of what they might be feeling, and you can connect with them a little bit better. You might be able to describe something to them from the aspect, "What are you feeling? What did that feel like? Well, I want you to feel it like this." rather than just a purely technical point of view. Some athletes are really connected to their body and what something feels like when they're performing, so if you can use that to your advantage as a coach you're going to connect with your athlete really well.

"We keep moving, we keep getting older and wiser but... as long as we keep enjoying it! That's the most important thing!"

And of course in 2015 you're dealing with an entirely different Code of Points to the one you competed under, what are your thoughts on the code, the bigger emphasis on artistry, and that change to an open-ended system?

I think because I never judged on the old system it didn't play with my mind too much. Because when you competed you knew your routines, and what you needed, but you didn't know absolutely everything about the code. You knew your major deductions but not the ins and outs of the code. So for me, jumping straight into the open-ended code was a perfect entrance level for judging.

There are so many advantages and disadvantages to the open code. Advantages are, I mean, compared to the old code, if you fall you still get the value of a skill as long as you completed it, it's the technical requirement. Previously you didn't always get the value. So I think that certainly benefits athletes to try those skills. What we found in the 2000-2004 era was that sometimes people weren't willing to take the risk on big skills because of the execution deductions, and everything being out of 10.0 so there was no advantage to doing anything bigger or worth more. So I really like that component of the new code - if you are brilliant and you've got really consistent huge skills like a Simone Biles, you can use them, you can show them, you can entertain the world with them. But I think the only disadvantage to some of that is that sometimes execution can get lost. Things like stretched knees, pointed toes, hitting full split, sometimes they might be not as important as getting the higher value skills. So I think it's just making sure that your balance your routine out for the overall look of it. Because I think that's where some people who don't follow gymnastics might get lost watching the sport!

(We proceed to have a further few moments' gushing about the "perfect packages" of gymnastics that are Simone Biles and Nastia Liukin)

Is it odd for you to be judging gymnasts who weren't even born when you took to the floor in Sydney? Do some of them have an idea of who you are? I know I for one would be telling my children who you are!

(Laughs) It's not that people don't know you, that doesn't bother me at all. To me it doesn't matter one bit that they know you're an athlete or not. The weird thing for me is when I look at the age of an entrant, or I look at an up-and-comer and I'm thinking "When do they become junior, when do they become senior?" and I look and they weren't even born when I competed at the Olympic Games! Next year will be the first generation of gymnasts that were born in 2000 becoming senior. Sydney, you know, was some 15-and-a-half years ago but to me that was just yesterday, in memories. And I think "Oh my gosh these athletes are going to be competing next year in Rio, they'll be doing their senior year at the Olympic Games, they were born the year I completed at the Sydney Olympics! Sometimes that totally blows my mind.

 Makes you feel a bit old, hey!

(Laughs) Yeah! Sometimes! I mean, I'm 31. Even in my day job, when I'm scanning and I'm checking birthdates I'm thinking "Oh my GOSH, you know? Gosh, they're young!"

(Laughs) I hear you! These days when I hear someone say "So-and-so gymnast is a 1999 baby, they're a 2000 baby." I think "Don't! Don't say that to me, argh! I was their age then, I don't want to hear that!"

Well that's life, isn't it. We keep moving, we keep getting older and wiser but... as long as we keep enjoying it! That's the most important thing!

Exactly, exactly. I agree. 

So now speaking of the Sydney Olympics, it has unbelievably been 15 years, and that's primarily why I hoped to have this chat with you today. Going back to that time when did it sink in for you, that you were going to be an Olympian? Was it as early as being named to the team? Or was it when you picked up your kit? Or as late as when you all walked into the arena together?

I think throughout the entire selection process you're just focussed on the team, and the selection process itself, you're not thinking about the Olympic Games. [Despite my good trial results] You had to put it out of your mind at every step of the selection, because you had to go to camp, you had to win your place to be on each apparatus. It's not about you just get given the opportunity. At camp you had to show your consistency, that you could be relied upon, but also show your skill value and execution is valuable to the team. So I had to put it out of my mind, "You're going to be an Olympian."

Even when you get to the Games you're trying not to think about it, just what you're there to do, not think about the thousands of people in the Olympic Village, or the crowds... so we were kept quite sheltered, Peggy and Jo and the coaches did keep us nice and sheltered. But I think the night of the opening ceremony, we were sitting in the Australian quadrangle area because of course we didn't walk in the ceremony as we were Day 2 competition --

That has always frustrated me, that gymnasts don't get to march!

I knoooow! I've never marched the opening ceremony! Ooh, I wish I could have! But sitting there watching the Australian team walking in, it was that 'buzz'. And then Cathy Freeman lighting the cauldron, those are the moments you're like, "Oh Gosh. This is the Olympic Games! This is what I was identified for a decade ago when I started at WAIS, this is it!"

So you have to keep trying to put it out of your mind, just keep trying to think "It's just another competition, gonna do X-Y-Z like in training." But of course when you march into the arena and there's 15,000 people screaming for Australia it hits you pretty hard! And then you really just want to do your best. You go out there and you've just gotta be proud. The Australian public loves you no matter what. You're Australian and you made it to the Olympic Games, only 6 girls (back then!) made the team and we had 21 girls trialling. And you were one of those 6, you have to feel pretty proud of achieving that.

"The moment I finished that floor routine was amazing. There's no other words. Sensational. I have to admit it took me three years to watch video of vault."

There was a lot of media hype leading up to the Olympics, especially after the Aussie women's program had such a great showing at '98 Commonwealths and '99 Worlds. How did Peggy prepare you all for that hoopla, and of course the gigantic stadium crowd? We've all heard about the infamous distraction tapes, but the noise is just off the charts in a stadium like that.

Oh, it is! And you know, we had the Test Event, we had the trials in the venue. But the crowd aren't 15,000-strong. No matter how many distraction tapes Peggy played it's just not the same. I mean, we were prepared for an entire zoo to run through the stadium! But you're so heightened in your sensations. You're concentrating on what you're doing and you're not really concentrating on what anybody else is doing around you, but you still hear things no matter what happens because of course you're in a heightened state. You've got to be trained to not react. Things like mobile phones beeping, laughter, things that happen in real crowd situations. And obviously all the other funny sounds and animal sounds were just so you can not respond to something out of the ordinary - what if a fire alarm went off, what do you do? - so those tapes are great for that 'in the moment' competing but nothing prepares you for the sound. The depth of sound that comes out of a crowd is insane.

I remember performing in, I think, the all-around competition. I'd messed up my first apparatus, I walked up onto the floor to complete my second routine of the day and was probably feeling a bit flat, you know, "I've got to get through this routine, now's a good a time [as any] to do my best to make up for what I've lost, and the crowd loves you no matter what." They'd forgotten about that first rotation and they were cheering and screaming and got me through that routine. And I did a better routine than I did on the first day because of them. Because of their unwavering support and the amount of energy you feel from the crowd, screaming for you. It's a feeling I'll probably never experience again in my career. How often do you get to compete to 15,000 people? A home crowd? Never. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Have you ever gone back on Youtube and re-watched the team preliminaries floor rotation? Although a tv broadcast doesn't quite compare to being there, you can definitely hear some of that huge crowd noise. And you even see a few people get to their feet for standing ovations, after you and after Trudy McIntosh, just hit routine after hit routine...

I have gone back and watched a few things. Of course, what you feel as an athlete looks completely different to what the judges and the crowd see. And what the crowd sees is just the pure joy of performance. And you go back and you go, "Gosh I really hope that I portrayed what I was feeling." because at the time you're trying to be so controlled and restrained and keeping your nervous competitive energy in check. So you're trying to be in control but also you want to be sure that you're performing and showing that you really do love what you do. But I have gone back and watched and every time, it gives me goosebumps. Because I just remember the wave of emotions that I felt through the routine. Having "I Still Call Australia Home" wasn't just music. It was who we are as Australians and everybody went on an emotional journey with that routine. You could feel that through the crowd. And that, I think - I hope! - went into my performance level. The moment I finished that floor routine was amazing. There's no other words. Sensational.

I have to confess, I'm a serial re-watcher of that floor rotation.


Yes! I was 14 at the time and I broke my VHS tape from constantly rewinding re-watching the Aussie round of prelims!


Now, in those prelims you ladies didn't have the happiest outings on vault or beam, but regrouped for an incredible floor rotation. Can you recall much about any pep talks you had with yourself, or with the team, to put it all behind you and step up for floor?

After vault... well... it is hard to come out in the first subdivision and compete. It took me three years, I have to admit, three years to watch video of the vault rotation. But I think... sometimes when you're performing something that's at your maximum capacity, you try too hard, and you have a little bit of self-doubt when you know it's a big moment and it unravels. But you do have to pick yourself up, and I think we did as a team. We didn't really talk too much, didn't really have a pep-talk, we personally all just regrouped. I think we just individually centred ourselves for the next apparatus. It was a momentous occasion, being in that moment, "Oh my God we're here at THE Olympic Games", it hits you pretty hard and strong.

There was less pressure going into Athens, going into Sydney there was an enormity of pressure. I had a camera 20 centimetres away from my face, and I remember saying to myself, "Don't cry. Be strong. Forget about it. Go and do the best bar routine you've ever done. It doesn't matter now. I can't change it." My score was thrown away anyway. They were never relying on my score to be a counting score in that time because it often was the 'backup' score. So I went into bars thinking "This is your event, this is the event you're brilliant at. This is the event that last year you scored a Perfect 10 on with that stick bonus." and you draw on those moments. You draw on all the times you've done those routines. You're like "How many times do you do that bar routine in a day?" So I relaxed into what I needed to do. I relaxed into who I was as an athlete. I wasn't as tense, I didn't have to be as tense because I'd just already made the biggest mistake I could possibly make. So "let's just be normal." It was almost like a pressure release so we just got on and did our job. You just do what you need to do. And strange things do happen at the Olympic Games but you just keep going.

Floor was probably the best apparatus to finish on for us because it gave us such a huge emotional lift. I remember in my routine, the one voice I heard during the entire floor routine was Min Cleland! Out of 15,000 people and I heard that voice! Because my ears were so attuned. I heard her and it helps you through. Honestly, I think it was one of the rotations of the Olympic Games for us for sure. And for the Sydney Olympics itself, for the Australian public. The Australian team on the most artistic apparatus, it was a way of giving to the crowd to thank them for their support.

"You get to a point where you just accept that this is my story. This is who I am and I can't hide from that. Why hide from it?"

A lot of the media attention focussed on you and your mother, Barbara. Audiences were told of the unfortunate death of your father in a number of feature pieces. Right before you competed bars in the all-around final, NBC American aired its profile piece where you and your mum talk about it quite candidly. There were people out there hearing your story for the very first time. If you don't mind my asking, what was it like to have to undertake that conversation together while you were still coping with it - "This very significant, personal thing is going to be asked about, our feelings are going to be on show." I think you both did amazingly well in the circumstances.

It obviously was a traumatic event, I found out while I was competing in Colorado Springs at the Junior Pacific Alliance. Coming back, I had to get back on the competition horse so to speak and put the emotional component aside, and those doubts and fears you have when it's something closely associated to when you heard about the tragedy.

I was watching a major swimming world championship with, I think it was Geoff Heugill... he got out of the pool, he'd just finished his race, they stuck a microphone into his face and said "How're you feeling, considering your dad's just passed on?" and I remember turning to my mum and saying, "That'll be exactly like that for me, won't it? If I become successful and get to the Olympic Games, that's going to happen to me isn't it?" And she was honest and she said "Yes. That's quite likely." My dad was the only Australian on that flight so it had already gained media attention.

I didn't expect to make the Commonwealth Games team a year later, I just went to trials to trial! I wasn't even in the realm of thinking about going to Commonwealth Games! So that was such a whirlwind, and of course it attracted a lot of media attention. In Western Australia I became a little bit of a "WA's Sweetheart", and you get to a point where you just accept that this is my story. This is who I am and I can't hide from that. Why hide from it? Because it is something I should be proud of, to be able to pick myself up and continue to compete to a high level and use an emotional charge that you get from a tragedy and use it for a positive outcome. My coaches didn't think I had that inner character, that strength, but I did. So that emotional strength filters through when you're doing interviews, and you just get used to answering the questions because it is my story. It inspires young people who've had difficult circumstances in their childhood, whether in sport or not, it does inspire them and gives them that connection: "Oh, all successful people don't have a smooth path." and if that's how I could inspire others, giving my story to the world was what it had to be. You're human and people want to see that you're human. I wouldn't have had it any other way.

A lot of that NBC stuff was filmed a fair way in advance. So quite a lot of the media hype was done with a fair distance between them being filmed and then the Olympic Games because they had a stop on all media contact with the team a good 8 weeks before Sydney, so we could focus on training. I think that really helped. That piece was filmed at the beginning of the year, NBC came out here and it was a technique that I'd never experienced before. Instead of questions being asked, I was sitting in a completely blacked-out room with a camera, so all you could see was a tiny red light and they gave you the book and wrote down, like a sentence, and it might say "The last time that I saw my father was, dot dot dot." and so you had this great need to fill the enormity of silence that was in the room, and I think you're a lot more genuine and honest. So I think that's why that piece was particularly moving for people. And I've watched it back and it's incredibly real. You're not forced to go there with that technique, you give of yourself a lot more.

One thing I was hoping not to talk much about today was the Sydney all-around vault 'debacle', because I feel like you get asked about it a lot and it's been done to death.

I don't get asked a lot, to be honest. Because most people don't realise it was me! I mean, I know Svetlana Khorkina wrote about it in her book, I do know that! (Laughs)

I have to admit I haven't read that book yet!

Yeah, it gets a reference. But the general public don't really know because it didn't get focussed on very much. I think the debacle as a whole was focussed on, rather than who found it and how-did-you-find-it. For me it was just, like, "There's a mistake. If that vault's the right height there's no way I'm landing on my feet, right?" (Laughs) I did 20 vaults a session, I knew how high the vault was, and as soon as I vaulted over it in warmup I knew. Always a great little question for quiz nights, I mean noone would know!

 I remember it coming up in an edition of International Gymnast last year, with "Quotes of the Year" there was one from you jut saying you were the one to spot the Sydney vault problem, and I was like "That's it? That's your quote of the year from Allana Slater? It's Allana frickin' Slater, people! Come on!"

I think people forget! It was just the enormity of the mistake that was focussed on. But yeah, it's a difficult one. Should the competition have started again? Who knows. It's just one of those things.

Well, given that you didn't have your best performances on vault at that competition, what was it like making the transition to the vaulting table, that two years later saw you become Commonwealth vault champion? Did it make things easier?

For me, the table was a way of having a new lease on life for vault. The whole table changed, and changed my life as an athlete. Because then... I didn't have a 'vault problem' because it was a new vault!

I had to work really hard before Sydney, telling myself "I am good at vault, I can do vault." because you keep getting knocked back. From performance, from not scoring well, things like that. As an athlete I had to work hard to convince myself to have the confidence that I was good enought o do vault. And I'd tried every type of vault in the code by that stage. You didn't see me compete them all, but I can tell you I tried every combination of vaults back then. When the vault table came out it was like, "Great! I have the chance to be a vaulter!" That I could be the next Commonwealth vault champion was the joke in the gym... and what do you know, it happened! Mentally, I could lose all the stress of vault and start afresh.

Was I technically as strong on vault? No. Well, not as strong as those who had learned to vault using the table. And you'll see that through the girls who transitioned to the vaulting table, the horse used a slightly different technique especially for the Yurchenko. But you didn't start to learn and then build up, in one year between the Olympics and Worlds you had to have a whole new vault worth a good value. So you didn't have the time to work on having brilliant technique. I'm so proud of my efforts, that I could turn around my career from being a Nervous Nellie on vault to becoming Commonwealth champ. And having that confidence - I didn't doubt myself as much on vault in the second half of my career. I could be a vaulter, nothing was stopping me. There was this new, safe, whizz-bang table, so why couldn't I be?

Would I have loved to learn on it as a young kid? Absolutely. You'd have good technique, you were extremely safe, no missing your hands or anything like that. I think the table revolutionised vaulting for men and women. These days we're seeing stuff you could've only dreamed about back then.

We got the vault table in the gym in maybe January, February of 2001. And some eight months later at Worlds you had to show up with decent vaults. I mean we all knew they weren't going to be huge difficulty vaults because nobody had had enough time to learn them. I remember at the World Championships training camp, my coach Nikolai was like, "I think we're going to try a Yurchenko 1 1/2!" and in one week before we left I learnt one, and then competed it.


But that's an upgrade you never would have made with the old vaulting horse. It really did give me a new lease on life...