Although Canada's Aisha Gerber did not reach her original goal of competing at the 2008 Olympic Games, she is pursuing new ambitions as a freshman competitor for UCLA. "There is so much more to gymnastics than the Olympics," she told IG.
Born June 21, 1990, in Thunder Bay, Ont., Gerber emerged as a top Canadian prospect while training under coach Elvira Saadi at the Cambridge Kips club. Saadi won team gold medals for the Soviet Union at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, the 1974 World Championships in Varna and the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. As a coach, Saadi's most prominent gymnasts have included Soviet prodigy Tatiana Groshkova and 1996 and 2000 Canadian Olympian Yvonne Tousek. Tousek went on to compete for UCLA from 2001-2004.
Gerber's international successes included third place all-around at the 2006 American Cup in Philadelphia; fourth place (tie) on floor exercise and sixth place on balance beam at the 2006 World Cup of Ghent, Belgium; and sixth place on vault at the 2008 Tournament of Masters, a World Cup meet in Cottbus, Germany.
She won team bronze medals at the 2005 Pan American Championships in Rio de Janeiro and the 2006 Pacific Alliance Championships in Honolulu. In Canadian domestic competition, Gerber's best results included first all-around at the 2005 Elite Canada meet and first place on uneven bars at the 2005 Canadian Championships.
In late 2006, Gerber took a break from gymnastics, and resumed training in early 2007 at Oakville Gymnastics Club, under coaches Kelly and Susan Manjak, Lorne Bobkin and Ashley Sportun. In 2008, Gerber won vault at the Gymnix International in Montreal and competed on two events (vault and floor exercise) at the Canadian Championships, where she finished eighth on floor exercise.
Gerber is now midway through her freshman season at UCLA, where her teammates include 2008 Canadian Olympian Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs and 2004 Canadian Olympic team alternate Marci Bernholtz. She has not declared a major, but is interested in a career in athletic therapy or coaching and choreography.
In this IG Online interview, Gerber assesses her career to date, and describes the motivations that now drive her as a collegiate competitor.
IG: We didn't see much of you after 2006. What was the nature of your absence from major competitions from 2006-2008?
AG: Toward the end of 2006 I decided to take a rest from gymnastics. My body was extremely worn down and, subsequently, I had lost all of my passion and drive to compete and train. When I left, I had no intentions of returning to the sport. Thankfully, time was the medicine I needed, and I made the decision to return to training in February 2007 with no laid-out plan of what I wanted in terms of returning to competition. But slowly I realized that I felt I owed it to myself to at least try for the Olympic dream that I had work all my life for.
IG: Looking back, what is your feeling about not reaching the Olympics?
AG: The road was a lot harder than I expected; my body had changed and grown a lot in the time I had taken off, but I feel like I kept pushing for my goal. In hindsight, I feel I did everything in my power and so I have no regrets, even though I didn't make it. Sure there was disappointment, but coming here to UCLA and getting to experience a sense of "team" like I've never felt before helped me to quickly realize the Olympics, though a great dream to have, is not the be-all and the end-all. There is so much more to gymnastics than the Olympics. It's about the privilege of getting to do things very few people can, and having the opportunity to do something that I love, every single day.
IG: Elvira Saadi was known as a tough but excellent coach in Russia, and Yvonne Tousek said she had a good relationship with her. What is your view of Elvira as a coach?
AG: Elvira is an amazing technical coach. Everything I know about the sport, I learned from her. I am so appreciative of everything she taught me.
IG: When and why did you switch clubs from Cambridge Kips to Oakville?
AG: I switched clubs in February 2007. Over the five-month break I took, it gave me the chance to figure out what I really wanted out of my career and who I was. When I decided to return, I felt that Oakville fit my priorities and my goals.
IG: In the past you were a rival with Elyse (Hopfner-Hibbs) for spots on the Canadian team, and now you are UCLA teammates. How has your relationship with Elyse changed since you started training and competing together at UCLA?
AG: Elyse and I have always been friends. Even though there was strong competition between us, I don't think we ever let that get in the way. We are teammates now and we were teammates then, too. Being at UCLA together has only strengthened our friendship, and I'm so glad that we are able to share the experience together.
IG: Some people find it easy to compare your style to Yvonne Tousek's - you are very artistic and have a unique quality of movement. What do you think of this comparison? Do you enjoy it, or can it be frustrating?
AG: I am truly honored by this comparison. Yvonne was a beautiful gymnast. I grew up watching her and wanting to be just like her someday. I think it's pretty cool to be compared to her.
IG: How did you and your former coaches develop your style? And, how are you and (UCLA head coach) Valorie (Kondos Field) working to continue evolving your style?
AG: My coaches and I have always worked hard to make my routines unique, both in artistry and in skill level. We always tried to find at least one thing that no one else was doing and put it in. Miss Val and I have continued with this and make every effort to make my routines, especially floor, stand out from the crowd.
IG: How challenging has it been for you to get all of your skills back as an all-arounder in college competition, rather than focus on your best events?
AG: It hasn't been as difficult as I thought. Even when my focus was on competing my best events, I still took the time to train bars and beam, and I think that it has really helped. Bars has been the biggest challenge, but my coaches and I have worked hard and worked smart, to get me to a place where I'm capable of doing all of the events in competition again.
IG: What is your priority at this point in your career - getting your routines to ultimate difficulty, improving your routines from your Elite days, or something else?
AG: Right now my focus is on my team here at UCLA. It's always in the back of my mind that I might return to elite competition, but time will tell. I'm just focused on building my routines in any which way my team needs me.
IG: After several years training and competing in the Canadian program, what can you suggest so the Canadian team can have better results between now and the 2012 Olympics in London?
AG: My best suggestion is to train smart. Make every effort to stay strong and healthy. With the minimum age at the Olympics being 16 now, girls need to sustain their bodies and make them last until they are old enough. I see so many young girls burning out before they are old enough to have a chance.
IG: Based on your consideration of a career in coaching and choreography, what ideas or changes would you personally like to implement in gymnastics?
AG: It's very frustrating to me to see "artistic" gymnastics losing its artistry. In each new cycle the rules cut further and further into the possibility of individual expression. Gymnastics is no longer about doing something beautiful, it's about cramming in all the skills the judges want to see. I'd like to see a return to uniqueness in the sport.
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