In the Prince Rupert Gymnastics Club, the steady smack of feet landing on mats fills the air.
Each of the club’s young athletes practices moves and routines under the steady, careful watch of their coach. Some of them are practicing back handsprings on the floor. Others practice doing kip-ups on the uneven bars.
Near the gym’s entrance, Dakota Swim-McNeil steadies herself on the low balance beam. She is working on doing a back handspring on the beam, a move that will help her advance to a higher level of competition in the future.
Steadying herself, she jumps high while arching her back in one fluid motion. She simultaneously reaches back with her hands as her feet leave the ground, finds the beam and lands softy, her hands first gripping the beam and guiding her body through the rest of the flip.
The move is still not perfect, but she’s made progress and she will keep working at it. If Swim-McNeil is going to achieve her ultimate goal of competing in the Olympics, this is a move the 12-year-old has to master.
Swim-McNeil was a gymnast long before she stepped foot in the gym. Her fascination with flips began when she was eight years old, watching YouTube gymnast Annie LeBlanc complete routines online. Swim-McNeil tried to replicate the routines she saw online.
“She would do everything from handstands to back tucks,” she said. “I wanted to try and do everything.”
Her mother, Teresa Swim, said she could see her daughter’s had a passion for the sport from an early age. Swim said Dakota would try the flips, handstands and somersaults she saw online throughout the house, usually wreaking havoc in the process.
“She did nothing but flip on my floor and crash my house,” Swim said. “All I would hear is the crash and then ‘I’m OK.’”
“Her teacher kept saying that she needs to be in gymnastics.”
Swim-McNeil said her favourite move to practice would be backflips.
“I just like to watch the sky be there and then it’s gone, then it’s there, then it’s gone,” she said.
Swim-McNeil began her formal training two years ago when the Prince Rupert club held a summer camp. Having seen her natural enthusiasm for the sport, her parents signed her up for a week.
Even though those early classes involved the most basic movements like handstands and cartwheels, Swim-McNeil was happy to be learning to do the things she had seen on her computer screen.
“She just came home with a smile on her face every day,” Swim said.
Bill Tyrwhitt, the gym’s coach, spotted Swim-McNeil early, and said that like many of the gym’s other athletes, she progressed very quickly when given more time to practice.
“She was a talented young girl who had flexibility and loved gymnastics,” he said. “Dakota just kept moving forward and getting better and better. It’s kind of amazing.”
Soon after Swim-McNeil joined the club, it moved from the Jim Ciccone Civic Centre to their current gym in the Ceremonial Room of the Museum of Northern B.C. At the new location, which was fully stocked with the proper equipment, Swim-McNeil’s skills improved significantly. She said she enjoys just about every aspect of the sport except for the conditioning, which incorporates movements designed to strengthen a gymnast core strength.
She has progressed from a level 0, where a gymnast learns only the most basic movements and techniques, to almost completing all the requirements to reach her level 6.
“It’s quite an achievement and we’re very proud of her,” said Tyrwhitt. “For an athlete to go from level 0 to level 6 in a year and a half is unheard of.”
Swim-McNeil competed with the club in its first competitions earlier this year, receiving gold for her top marks finishes in Terrace in March as well as three golds and a bronze in Kitimat earlier in February.
Swim-McNeil knows she is still a long way from representing Canada on the international stage, but is confident that if she keeps pushing and working hard, she will eventually get there.
“It would be a really cool thing to do,” she said.