North Valley Gymnastics Society teammates Nicole Sjoberg (left) and Neala Hackman hope to compete at home in the BC Winter Games in February, hosted in Greater Vernon. (Contributor)

North Valley Gymnastics Society teammates Nicole Sjoberg (left) and Neala Hackman hope to compete at home in the BC Winter Games in February, hosted in Greater Vernon. (Contributor)

Vernon gymnasts aiming for BC Games berths at home, with Kelowna assist

Nicole Sjoberg and Neala Hackman have overcome gym closures and gym fires in their training plans

Two Vernon gymnasts have been training hard for the past six months in the hopes of making it to the BC Winter Games.

Neala Hackman and Nicole Sjoberg, both 12-years-old, made the commitment to try to earn a spot to the Games this past summer when they found out Vernon would be hosting.

Hackman has been part of the North Valley Gymnastics Society’s (NVGS) competitive team for more than five years. She has worked very hard throughout the years, says club coach Naomi Rokus, and has always shown an amazing amount of physical and mental strength and dedication to the sport.

“I remember when she was eight and I heard this little voice say ‘I did it’ – I looked over and she had done her first kip on the bars – this is a skill that is a fundamental part of competitive gymnastics and very technical. Everyone wants to get their kip,” said Rokus. “There was Neala calmly and casually notifying us (her coaches) that she had indeed done her first kip. So chill. I was shocked and did not expect it. This is the type of athlete that Neala is: strong, calm and pushes herself everyday.”

Hackman, a Grade 7 student at Harwood Elementary, decided last year that she wanted to go into the late French immersion program, so transferred from BX Elementary. Hackman was also very active in Highland dance for a number of years.

Sjoberg joined the NVGS competitive team in the fall of 2018. She was part of NVGS’ recreational program and she stood out from all the other children with her flexibility and eagerness to learn and try new skills.

“Nicole is almost always the first athlete ready to start an event and is usually the last to leave the event,” said Rokus. “She puts in more numbers than any other gymnast on the team. She is so fun to coach – she is serious, but not so serious that she doesn’t have fun and she wants to learn and know how to do her skills better.”

Sjoberg, a Beairsto Elementary Grade 7 student, has played piano for years and just recently retired from her lessons to do more gymnastics. Sjoberg has an amazing imagination and artistic flair – from helping design her Grade 7 hoodie design to coming up with some of the most unique Halloween costumes.

In order to qualify for the games in Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) athletes must be in Canadian Competitive Program (CCP) Level 7 or 8 and be between the ages of nine and 14. The training for gymnastics is rigorous and relenting. Gymnasts put in endless hours and it requires not only physical strength, but an incredible amount of mental strength.

This year Hackman and Sjoberg both increased their training from three days to four days a week. It was a big decision for them to take on the extra day, but it was paying off. They were learning new skills that would advance them in Level 7 and building confidence.

On Oct. 31, the goals for the pair and 45 of their NVGS competitive teammates and coaches were completely derailed when a fire leveled their gym. The building along with all of its contents were completely destroyed.

Within hours of news of the fire Synergy Gymnastics and Kelowna Gymnastix (KG) had reached out to the club to offer space for NVGS competitive athletes to train. Within a week NVGS had 12 athletes training multiple days at Synergy and KG. Now there are more than 25 NVGS athletes training in Kelowna. The NVGS team has athletes from the age of seven up to 17 with a wide range of levels.

NVGS is very thankful to Cindy Rost and Hailey Soetaert (Synergy Gymnastics Centre) and Heather Ivanitz, Jesse Jakin and Bruce Elwood (Kelowna Gymnastix). Their generosity has been so appreciated – fitting in 28 athletes into already packed gyms takes some magic and planning. They did this without hesitation and have continued to offer NVGS athletes space to train until a temporary home is found. The opportunity to continue training has allowed the team to take part in this year’s competitive season.

Hackman and Sjoberg haven’t had an easy road from gym closures due to COVID in 2020 and the fire at their home gym, but they have continued to push themselves through all of the adversity. They have never wavered from wanting to make it to the BC Games.

“Neala, Nicole and all of their teammates have done an amazing job to get into the competition phase of training,” said Rokus. “When an athlete goes from having a set plan to having that plan explode in front of them it can be very easy to just give up. Not every day since the fire has been easy, but when I think about what these kids have gone through and the fact that they are still so driven and motivated I am just taken aback… I feel very privileged to be their coach.”

The trials for the BC Games are Dec. 11 in Kelowna. Hackman and Sjoberg will be trying out for the BC Games along with athletes from Kamloops, Salmon Arm and Kelowna. The Level 4, 5 & 6 athletes will also be competing.

READ MORE: Trio of Vernon councillors flip for gymnastics club after fire

READ MORE: Vernon gymnastics club hopes to rebuild after fire

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