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Suspension of Sudbury Saltos' activities stirs memories of the past

A pause often allows time for reflection.

While this may be true in a variety of different settings, it's most certainly the case for all those involved with the YMCA Sudbury Saltos Gymnastics Club.

The combination of the current pandemic as well as the challenges facing the Sudbury YMCA, home to the local group since the early 1980s, has forced the Saltos to put their equipment in storage - at least for the time being.

It's a break in the action that Bob Simon would rather not take - though at age 72 and somewhat less spry than he was at the time he founded the club, backing away from his forty year involvement with the club is something that he knew was coming, at some point, pandemic or no pandemic.

First catching a glimpse of the sport through the leader corps at the "Y" in his youth, Simon soon turned his attention to coaching. "I just wanted to go in and help the kids out," he said. "At that time, there was certainly no idea of a competitive club; I was in helping out with the rec program."

The presence of Bob Simon is clearly synonymous with the Sudbury Saltos in the eyes of most local gymnastics folks, yet so too is the venue that has served as host, albeit in two different locations, over the years.

"It's always been a part of the Y - I insisted on it," said Simon. "That's where I grew up, as a teenager, and I wanted to pass it on. And at least some of the kids that we were getting could not afford to go to the bigger clubs. For those kids, and others that could not commit to the heavy duty competitive schedules, this gave them a chance to still learn gymnastics."

Of course, dealing with a building that was clearly showing its age just as the new club was being launched required some thinking on the fly. "The old YMCA (on Lloyd Street) was a bit of a challenge," laughed Simon. "Whenever we had a rain storm, we had to go and put buckets around the gym where the roof was leaking."

"We didn't (initially) have all of our equipment. The girls would throw a mat down where they were going to do tumbling, but the rest was on bare floor. We gradually worked towards getting equipment."

Still, the facility had a certain charm. "I loved the old Y," noted men's head coach Dean Dion, he himself a graduate of the program as an athlete. "I always thought about it more like an extension of my family."

By his own admission, Simon was not a competitive gymnast. Yet from a modest interest, one which opened the door to a life-long passion with coaching, emerged a commitment to improve, both personally and as a program.

"I had met a dance instructor out at a provincial park one time and she had mentioned the Y was looking for someone to help out," said Simon. "I got there and there was no coach, just kids. Still, I found gymnastics fascinating and challenging. I took some courses, got my certification and a couple of years later, we joined the OGF (Ontario Gymnastics Federation - now Gymnastics Ontario)."

Retired from Inco following more than 31 years spent with the Sudbury mining giant some time ago, Simon was learning about more than just technical gymnastic skill development. "Dealing with young people, you realize really quick that it's not just the athletic skills they have to learn, you have to help mold the person, work with them psychologically and emotionally."

"Because I was a bit of an anti-social clown, I had to learn how to do that. I could be tough on them, but they always knew that I cared."

In fact, the earliest of relationships live on to this day.

From co-coach Pete Grozdanovic (who came up with the name of Sudbury Saltos), to Della Reid (now Campbell - "we pulled her out of the pool, just 13 years old, and she came up and was teaching me"), and on to current the likes of coach Dion, whose mother (Pat) presided over the parents committee for many a year, Simon has crossed many a path.

Even as the club halted training in March, Dean Dion was still at his side.

"I became a gymnast, almost by chance," Dion admitted. "My sister, who is one year older than me, was doing gymnastics at Sudbury Secondary with the Sudbury Elites. One Saturday, they had a couple of athletes in town from Toronto, guys who were with the national team. They did some routines and I was hooked - I was twelve."

Entering his first competition after just five weeks of training, Dion would progress to the point of capturing gold at a provincial championship, before his career was cut short due to a shattered ankle when he was struck by a car. One year of heart-wrenching introspection would eventually give way to a return to the sport, climbing aboard as a coach.

In part, his motivation lie in a belief in the fundamentals of the coach-athlete relationship, one which he had obviously experienced from the other side of the coin, prior to beginning to mentor young gymnasts of his own. "Our philosophy on coaching is different," he said. "It wasn't about push, push, push."

"Bob and I and the other coaches were not about to push every athlete to make them an amazing gymnast. You watch, you find the ones that show the interest, and run with it."

Not that this came at the exclusion of others. Rather, it was more of an acceptance that not all athletes are driven with Olympic dreams. In fact, the overwhelming majority are not, a reality that smacked Dion in the face, even back in his days as a participant.

"I remember when I was a competitive gymnast, and the group of boys I was with, five or six other competititors - they did not have the same drive that I did. I understood that. I wasn't going to push any of them, at that point, as a gymnast, and I decided that's not what I was going to do as a coach, either."

Still, the future is an uncertain one for the Sudbury Saltos. For the time being, the good feelings stem from memories of the past.

"We built something good for the kids - that's what I started out to do," stated Bob Simon. "I wanted to give the kids something to be proud of."

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