Fifty years of gymnastics meets and memories
by Randy Pascal
From humble beginnings to a story of gymnastic success in the new millennium, the Sudbury Laurels have seen it all over the course of the past
Come June 8th, hundreds of those who have been touched by the work of the local organization will gather to celebrate a half century of athleticism,
sharing stories from the various eras, dating all the way back to the summer of 1969, a time when the worlds of Heather Shaw (the club's very first
coach) and Gisèle Dandenault (now Gisèle Pilon, the club's very first athlete) initially collided.
Tabbed as a test subject for a Laurentian University study that was being undertaken by Shaw's husband, Dandenault, then 11 or 12 years old, was
approached by her gymnastics mentor to be, intrigued as she was about the possibility of forming a competitive club in Sudbury.
Home, initially, was a residence for prospective nuns, just in behind the current location of the main branch of the Sudbury Public Library.
“There was a gymnasium in the residence,” recalled Pilon. “They had mats and we had the bars, but we needed a beam.”
“Mrs Shaw had a friend who actually went into the woods, cut down a tree, trimmed it to a four inch width and put two planks at each end. He did a great
job of making it smooth, but it was a lit bit bit warped. That was our balance beam.”
Gradually, the numbers grew, largely on the passion of Shaw, a fan of the sport who garnered her knowledge of gymnastics at a pace that ran parallel to
the path of her new students. “Mrs Shaw advanced and progressed with us,” said Pilon. “We had compulsories in those days and she had a book that she would
literally be reading from. Then we would get down there (to competitions) and we would find out that we were totally different than everyone else.”
“She worked so hard on becoming more knowledgeable, taking clinics, even bringing up Olympians. She was a really bright woman, and she could pick up
things, technically, so quickly.” If the notion of travelling south of Barrie for meets several times a winter has now become run of the mill for the
average competitive gymnastics family, such wasn't the case in the early 1970s.
“We started by billeting, because Mrs Shaw knew people in Oakville and that area,” said Pilon. “We travelled initially by bus, by Greyhound, to get there
and home. We would compete all day, then she would take us out for dinner and a movie, because we would take the red-eye, at midnight, in order to get
As Pilon evolved, over time, from athlete to coach, it was a signal for the next generation of talent to arrive, a grouping that included the only one of
her three children where gymnastic genetics were seemingly passed along. “When I was younger, I tried a bunch of sports,” suggested Lo-Ellen Park
Secondary teacher and long-time gymnast Julie Wuorinen.
“I think my mom did not want to force me into something that I didn't really want. But I was doing somersaults off the couches and cartwheels down the
hallways at home. I think she knew, deep down, that this was the direction I would follow.”
By the time that Wuorinen and the likes of Mélodie Dignard, Kristy Uguccioni and Denis Vachon arrived on the scene, the myriad of Laurels
training sites that required pre-workout set-up and post-workout tear downs had given way to established facilities.
Following the initial breakthrough to a permanent facility at the end of Mountain Street, the club had moved to the old Sudbury Squash and Tennis Centre
off Falconbridge Road and on to the Falcon Five Plaza, with additional stops at a Second Avenue venue and the current Ecole Sacré Coeur before their present
home on Gemmell Street was obtained.
And while all of the young athletes with the Laurels were initially introduced to gymnastics via the artistic stream, a new up and coming tumbling force
was about to break through, headlined by Vachon and Wuorinen. “We always called Denis the “Cat”, because he always landed on his feet,” said
“His sense of awareness in the air was always incredible, right from day one.” To her credit, Vachon's female counterpart was right on his heels. “I was
doing my OACs that first competitive season, and I think I was third at the first qualifier, then second at the next, then provincials came and I won there
– then I won nationals.”
The breakaway tangent of tumbling was still in its infancy and Wuorinen was enjoying noteworthy success, participating at the World Championships
in Denmark in 2001. Still, it is the lessons of the journey that most stick with her to this day, lessons that were made available thanks to the existence
of the Laurels.
“The biggest takeaway, for me, was the value of hard work, never giving up, not quitting,” said Wuorinen. “In gymnastics, it's all about building your
skills and progressions. You're not going to just try and get it the first time. You fail a thousand times before you master it. There is definitely an
appreciation when you attain that skill.”
If there was a generational passing of the baton in the Dandenault – Pilon – Wuorinen bloodlines, the presence of Natalie (Dovigi) Robinson, along
with that of Lisa Kivinen, was always something of a constant with the Laurels.
“I started with the club when I was six years old, and I competed until I was 16,” said Robinson, now an Ottawa-based educator. “I started coaching when
I was 11, all the way through my teens, into my twenties, then transitioned into an administrative role with the club. I worked with Lisa through the
nineties, when we ran provincial competitions at Countryside and in Lively.”
Robinson would also deal with the more stressful involvement as both a parent and grand-parent of young gymnasts. “I've been involved, either personally
or peripherally, for all five of the decades,” she noted. No surprise then that she stresses a couple of the core elements of the Laurels in providing her
assessment of both the longevity and success of the club.
“Whatever level the athletes are at, it's always been about building good physical attributes: flexibility and balance and strength and coordination,”
she said. “The other side is the fact that it's been the parents that support the organization that have always been the ones who have made that possible
for their kids.”
And have now made that possible for fifty years. Definitely a reason to celebrate.
With the official date of the 50th anniversary of the Sudbury Laurels slated for Saturday, June 8th, anyone seeking more information or wishing to
attend the evening gala at the Steelworkers Hall is asked to contact the club at (705) 521-1551, or search Sudbury Laurels Anniversary on