There’s a new crop of young gymnasts thriving in the pressure cooker atmosphere of national competitions.
One of those new, young faces is Aila McKinley, 12, who climbed to the top of the podium, winning gold at the 2022 Artistic Gymnastics National Championships.
The competition took place May 26 to 30 in Richmond, B.C., where provincial gymnastic teams competed against each other displaying elite skills on vault, bars, floor, and beam.
The St. Albert resident, a gymnast training under coaches Berrie Onishenko and Nadia Wassef at YEG Gymnastics in Edmonton, qualified as part of the six-member Team Alberta Level 9 (11 to 13 years).
“Our goal was to be in the top three. We were really surprised. After Ontario got third and B.C. second, and Quebec was really good, we didn’t think we’d got anything. We just stood up and ran to the podium,” said McKinley.
Team Alberta also included Brook Drummond (YEG Gymnastics), Sarah Wong (Calgary Gymnastics Centre), Molly Holowchuk (Ortona Gymnastics Club), as well as Londyn Gahr and Cruz Cloman, both from Capital City Gymnastics Centre.
McKinley was first all around in the qualifications, and finished seventh in finals, according to YEG Gymnastics. She placed fourth on vault and floor, and won the Canadian Championship Bronze Medal on bars. McKinley and Drummond contributed scores for the team event to help Alberta take home gold, crowning them national champions, YEG said in a Facebook post.
McKinley’s style is a powerful stance with a dynamic, bold approach. She scored 9.1 on vault, 9.075 on bars, 9.062 on floor and 7.975 on beam. Her all-around score was 35.212 out of 40 points.
"She's dedicated, focused, and very strong. She likes to work hard and is receptive to corrections. She wants to get better and spends a lot of time practicing. And she doesn't give up," said Onishenko.
McKinley trains 22 hours weekly. Enrolled as a sports academy student in Grade 6 at École Leo Nickerson School, she completes her core courses in the morning and trains at YEG in the afternoon.
“There’s no fighting to get her going to the gym. She is always the first one at the gym. She drives her inner self. Aila is completely inner-driven,” said Janet McKinley, her mother and a part-time teacher at Leo Nickerson.
“She’s learned so much. The discipline. The focus. The maturity. Her travelling with the coach and the team — that carries on in the school,” said her mom.
Both coaches — Onishenko and Wassef — support athletes in diverse ways, yet the goal remains the same: helping gymnasts pave the way for a successful future on their terms.
“They push you, but they are kind and caring. They want you to do well in the future," said McKinley. "Berrie talks to you about the level you want to do. She talks about the skills you need, and if you want to learn a skill for higher levels, she helps you learn. Nadia pushes you, but she doesn’t' force you to do anything you don’t want to do.”
Four elite Olympians who represented Canada also competed at nationals. The Canadian gymnastics giants who achieved international fame were Ava Stewart, Rose-Kaying Woo, Shallon Olsen, and three-time Olympian Ellie Black who was “the marquee event.”
“It was so cool to watch them, and they signed our medals,” McKinley said, adding it was huge thrill to meet her heroes, especially Ellie Black.
While most kids her age are planning vacations, McKinley chooses to train throughout the summer. Her next step is refining techniques on the apparatus. It includes smoothing out flips when swinging between bars of different heights, balancing dismounts, developing steadier backsprings on beam, and polishing double tucks on floor.
Still a work in progress, McKinley is setting her sights on one day advancing to the Olympics. Next year she hopes to move into the novice program, a major track into the Olympic stream.
And Onishenko supports her completely. "She's just 12. She's young and the road to that high level is long. You start with a goal, and if she has goal, it's something she can attain."