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Denis Vachon and the start of a T & T tradition with the Laurels

As tales are told this coming Saturday evening, when generations of local gymnasts gather to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Sudbury Laurels, talk is inevitably going to turn to one of the greatest male gymnasts that this country has ever produced.

A multi-medal winner at World Championships, most often in the double-mini trampoline event, Denis Vachon initially developed an interest through a set up/tear down program that Jack Miller was hosting at Chelmsford Valley District Composite School.

"I was three when I first started," Vachon the recently recalled. "It was Jack who told my mother that it would be in my best interest to go to a more competitive gym in Sudbury."

Although he would enjoy some measure of success in the men's artistic field - Vachon noted a provincial championship performance on the vault, one year - his true calling would be discovered a little further along.

"I was pretty weak on rings, pommel horse and parallel bars," he suggested. "I don't have very good shoulders, I don't have very good flexibility, and I don't put on bulk. I started tumbling in grade eight."

"I had decided I wanted to be a national level gymnast, so in grade nine, I took a year off men's gymnastics to try and build a higher skill level in tumbling. My tumbling really took off, and I realized how much I disliked doing rings and pommel horse."

Teamed with coach Alan Claus, Vachon was the very first competitive tumbler in the history of the Laurels, a group that never expanded much beyond a handful of athletes, even when they opened it up to a few of the artistic girls that seemed to have a knack for tumbling.

This was all new, both to Vachon, and to the Laurels. "I've always felt very fortunate that they (the Laurels) tried to cater that program to try and have something to offer me, since gymnastics (men's artistic) wasn't really my thing."

"It started with me, but then became about Julie (Pilon Wuorinen) and I, together. We both got to the senior level at the same time, which was really cool. I feel that (GymZone owner) Lisa (Kivinen) and Alan and all of them really wanted to allow me to have an opportunity to flourish, and they took a lot of steps to ensure that was a possibility," Vachon added.

And much in the same manner that women's artistic had grown from a makeshift beam carved from a nearby tree a decade or two earlier, so too did the Laurels' tumbling stream require some patience to mature.

"There was a full evolution," noted Vachon. "For the first two and a half years in the sport, I used to tumble on the artistic floor, but in a straight line, going towards the pit. That could really only fit half of my tumbling line."

"I would walk back and have to do the second part. We had to be creative with that equipment. We would go to North Bay, once every three weeks, so that we could do a full line. Somebody eventually stepped up and gave us the money to purchase the actual tumbling rod floor, which completely changed the program."

The initial set-up was not ideal, but may have actually served a higher purpose, in the long run. "I wouldn't have been able to put my finger on it then, but now, as a higher end coach, I can look back and see it as really beneficial."

"When we would go to meets, we were so busy adjusting to equipment, making sure our mark was accurate, making sure that everything was on target, that you were distracted from the competition stress. You had too many other things to worry about."

Though he is unable to be in Sudbury this weekend to share memories with the group, there is no denying the profound impact of the time Vachon would spend with the Laurels, imprinting his future in a very big way.

"Organized sport changes your life," said Vachon. "It teaches you all of the fundamentals to survive in life - the idea that you need a work ethic to accomplish your goals, the idea that you will fail, and that it's not the end of the world, that you can get back up on your feet and learn from that failure, and how not to let your head well when you have successes."

"You learn all of those life lessons."

Still, this particular athletic setting was pretty darn special. "With Lisa at the helm, they always treated you as though sport should enhance your life, and not just in the physical way, the fitness aspect," he contined. "It should enhance your health and wellness, your emotional stability, your self-esteem."

"I don't think I would be the person I am today, had I not gone to Laurels."

These days, Vachon is well on his way to expanding his legacy in the sport, having served for more than ten years as a coach/advisor to the national tumbling team, all while working with many of the country's top competitors in this discipline as Tumbling and Trampoline Program Co-Ordinator at Burlington B.G.'s.

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