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...