Tuesday, July 12, 2016

How The West Was Lost

The Hon. Mia Davies MLA BMM
Minister for Sport and Recreation
Western Australia

Dear Minister and Department Members,

Dear you, Reader,

Dear Friends and Families,

This afternoon it was unexpectedly announced that the women's artistic gymnastics program at the West Australian Institute of Sport (WAIS) is to be closed down on December 31st, not long after the excitement and fervour of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

It is with great urging that I ask you to reconsider this action. Not just for my own interests as a longtime spectator and social media contributor to the sport, but for the wellbeing of the families and athletes who have spent years working with the program.

I wish that I could say that, in my capacity as the above, there was something remarkable about me. I wish I could say I inspired the kinds of hopes, dreams and excitement these athletes do. But I don't, I strive to elevate those that do.

Perhaps you were not all fully aware of the utter 'remarkableness' of this program.

WAIS Gymnastics is not only a significant program in the scheme of Australia's gymnastics operations, it is the premier program. Thanks to WAIS, Australia can boast a female World Championship gold and silver medallist, (the nation's first), 9 Olympians, a multitude of Commonwealth Games gold medals, FIG World Cup gold and silver medals, and a national championship results board that sags under its own weight. To put it bluntly - much of Australia's rise on the world stage in gymnastics between 1991 and 2014 is thanks to the environment and consistency fostered at WAIS.

There was something remarkable about Sarah Lauren, one of Australia's youngest ever gold medallists at a Commonwealth Games in 2002. There was something remarkable about Daria Joura, the Russian-Australian Olympian who in early 2008 received a floor routine score that topped the rest of the world. There was something remarkable about Allana Slater, an upstart redhead the world met in 1998 in Kuala Lumpur and watched lead Australia to a consecutive Commonwealth team gold in Manchester 2002. And truly there is something remarkable about Lauren Mitchell, our first women's world champion and a dual Olympian who graciously credits her success to her WAIS Gymnastics' renowned coaches and specialists.

Unfortunately, since 2011, Australia's international results are not completely what they have been in the past. The road to Rio has been paved with hard work, unpleasant decisions, nailbiting performances and the absolute best of intentions. Stalwart performer Mitchell has suffered a number of injuries that have hampered her world-class contributions to the team. Injuries have also niggled at our recent national champions Georgia Godwin and Rianna Mizzen, while Rio Olympics alternate Emily Little (who calls WAIS home) has herself fought valiantly in the green and gold despite minor injuries and a brief break from competing.
After the women's team performed shakily at the London Olympics, the funding and coaching structure within gymnastics (like other sports under the ASC's review) was under heavy scrutiny in an attempt to right the ship. National head coach Peggy Liddick acknowledged that improvement would not happen overnight, and after serious review and restructure of the national high performance KPIs decided to send no representatives to the 2013 World Championships, an unprecedented move. Australia had qualified a berth on its own merits, but all gymnasts were to stay at home with the intent to improve difficulty and consistency across the national program. Although lamentable, as several eligible athletes were fit enough to compete, the decision was upheld. The strategy paid off in a top-8 team finish one year later in China, even without anchor Mitchell, and an individual apparatus final placing for Victoria's Larrissa Miller. But the relief was short-lived after further nerves and injuries set in before 2015 World Championships, and a team finish outside the top 10 saw Australia face its toughest challenge yet leading into the Olympics. There would be one last opportunity to qualify a full team berth to Rio: Finish 4th or higher at the Rio Test Event in six months' time or settle for qualifying just one individual. To the dismay of fans, the Australian women (led by Emily Little) again did not finish as high as hoped at the event, and would see only one of them selected to compete at the Games.

And that is where we are today: only one Australian gymnast will compete in 3 weeks in Rio. It is not a WAIS gymnast, but it is a gymnast that justly earned her selection, and counts WAIS' competitors as her friends. Her compatriots. Her sisters. We warmly congratulate Larrissa Miller on her deserved selection. WAIS will proudly field the reserve role in Emily Little, who last week did not let disappointment distract her and won the vault event at a competition in the Netherlands, and finished 5th on the event in Portugal. These two Australians are great inspirations for young athletes everywhere, as are so many of WAIS' past and present competitors.

In short, WAIS Gymnastics is worth much more to Australia than the loss of it would be. It is greatly distressing to read that parents and athletes, and even Gymnastics Australia officials, were not given prior warning of this decision. We respectfully ask that you do not extinguish a fire that ignited in 1998 with a maiden Commonwealth Games team gold medal, and the Perth gymnast who became the trailblazer for so many. Gymnastics Australia President Jacqui Briggs-Weatherill said of the news, "This sends the message 'Your aspirations aren't important'." and it is heartbreaking to have to think of the situation like this. It would be extremely difficult for the 60 gymnasts of the program to transition to other locations to continue training, or other sports programs altogether. The 2016 National Championships in Melbourne allowed WAIS gymnasts to show tremendous promise and potential, in both junior and senior fields. There is so, so much more to come from this program in the lead-up to Commonwealth Games 2018 and Tokyo 2020.

Please reconsider the move to close down the WAIS Gymnastics program.

My sincere thanks for your time.