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Successful People from Our Neighborhood - Erika-Leigh Howard (Stirton) - Rhythmic Gymnast.
realtormarina
Please, welcome, Erika-Leigh, life-time inspiration for all Olympium gymnasts.  Erika came to Canada for a brief summer visit, instructing our gymnasts at the summer came and kindly agreed to share some of her stories.
Erika with Clubs

Erika, please, tell as who you are and how did you get started in Rhythmic Gymnastics.




My name now is Erika-Leigh Howard, I got married 2 years ago, but when I was competing my name was Erika-Leigh Stirton. I started at the club at 1989. I was in artistic gymnastics first. Actually I was dancing at my gym club at some Christmas show and Tamara… who was a head judge in Canada and she was there because she was doing choreography. She saw me moving and said: “This girl should move to rhythmic gymnastics”. And it was good, because I was tall and I did not have upper body strength, I was not gonna be a good artistic gymnast, they told me I would never go to national level. I tried out for another club called Seneca, but it meant training in North York and they had school program, quite complicated. My parents said: “Do we have to give up on our 9-year old for the sport she’d never done before?”
And it was just by chance – my brother was a swimmer and they had a competition at the Olympium and my Mom saw a sign and brought me for try-out with Danuta. Try out went well, but it was in the middle of the year with artistic gymnastics. An in my family – you finish what you start! I came 1 day a week at first, then I finished at artistic gymnastics, came for summer camp and started at the Olympium.
Erika with clubs

So you were 9 when you started?
Yes, 9 or 8, I was born in August, so it is kind of towards the end of the year.
This is good to know, as some parents think starting in Rhythmic Gymnastics at 9 is too late.
I had a pretty fast rise. I did Provincial for 1 year and next year I went for National. I was in National Novice for 1 year. Back then rules were quite different – they had one category called High Performance, so Elite Canada was open and everyone competed together Juniors and Seniors. I was 11, it was in 1992, I hadn’t turned 12 yet and I was competing against the girls that would eventually go to the Olympics, 18 and 19-year olds. Also, it was interesting because we were competing with Seniors we had to do senior apparatus, but because I was junior I also had to do junior apparatus, so as 11 year old I had 5 apparatus.

Combo with Ball

How many hours per week were you training?

Well, we did 4 hours a day, I think 5 days a week, and I had Wednesdays off, as I had ballet classes. Until Danuta said I had to train on Wednesdays too, so I quit ballet.

What was your favourite apparatus?

I really liked everything: I liked hoop a lot and I liked clubs. But really it was more certain routines that I liked. And I would go through phases, like I had a routine to Dracula that I really loved, then I had a club routine to some Spanish music I loved. I would fall in love with the whole performance not some separate things. And this was my strength, that I was pretty rounded, I wasn’t the most flexible gymnast  in the world, but I was pretty good with apparatus, I had good skills, I really liked the whole performance.
Erika with Hoop

That was the comment that I’ve heard about Erika Leigh the most – she is so dramatic and her dance looks so complete.

Well, for me, this is a combination of sport and art, that’s why I went into dance after - I always enjoyed performing, this is expression for me. And if you ask my parents why they put me into sport, they would say it was because I was constantly moving, I would come home from training and go to the backyard and make my own routines. My parents’ house is from the 70-s so we had stucco ceiling and you could see in a family room – there is no stucco in line where I was doing my hoop routines. May be that’s why I got very comfortable with the apparatus – nobody was telling me how to do it, I was trying to figure it out myself. As I did commentary for C TV during the Olympics in summer, I joked that I used to make up my own routine, and then go and perform and after I would interview myself!

When you used to compete, how you guys used to handle the competition within the club? Weren’t the other girls getting jealous?

We were such good friends, I don’t remember any evil feelings. I always,  think it its more powerful to inspire those around you, its fine for you to do well, but if you can elevate those around you to excellence and greatness –it is more exciting, it’s more fun to share, to be able to go to the competition with someone, to stand there on a podium with your best friend. And I think we would always use each other as fuel. If you see someone doing well, you would look and think: “How is she doing this? What is that she is doing that I am not doing?” It’s great if you can learn from one another. And also it was all about the entire club doing well. We all were dominant, and back in 90-s we were dominant and every level, Interclub, Provincial, and National Level! It is hard, because you want to do well for you, but for me it wasn't just about winning, but doing my best! Rhythmic Gymnastics has so many variables, it is not like we run and whoever comes first – wins. If you just go out and give a performance of your life and judges don’t give you the score – it is not happy, it is not pleasant, but you did your very best and nobody can take this feeling away from you.
Erika with Rope  99

Generally I don’t remember the scores that I got, I don’t remember the color the metals were or the placement I got. What I remember is some incredible feeling when I gave myself some Goosebumps. The medals tarnish, you lose them. It’s like I went to University and my medals used to be on a display and my Mom put them all in the box under the stairs, because it was time to move on. There are other components in life and gymnastics is just one small aspect of it. But the beauty of it is that it can set you up for the success, because you learn discipline, work ethic, the persistence, taking criticism and learning from it and really working on yourself, becoming an independent learner, also becoming a good team member. All those things will help you to be successful in school, in your future job, in your interpersonal relationships, it is just life skills. Sometimes we get focused too much on the outcome, and the outcome is secondary. It is about doing it right, and if you get that medal – fine, it’s your cherry on top. And if you really want medals – I can give you some of mine.

True it is not about what you do, but who you are….

Right!

What is your highest achievement?

My most successful competition was Commonwealth Games.



That was Malaysia, right?
Yes, at that competition I was able to perform to my abilities. I set a goal, I wanted to win 6 gold medals. And I remember just a few days before the competition I started to have a panic attack, oh my God, six gold medals! It is a feeling like standing by the mountain Everest and having to get to the top, completely overwhelming. I broke this goal into smaller ones, I wasn’t thinking about 6 medals, but rather that I needed to be clean and consistent and to be clean and consistent I needed to be relaxed and calm and I needed to perform.

Did you get your 6?

I got 5, all the individual ones: ball, rope, hoop, clubs and ribbon and we got silver in group.
Erika with BallBall

Did you ever have arguments with Danuta?

I don’t think I was a very easy person to coach, I am very emotional, I don’t really remember any arguments. Probably from the very beginning Danuta knew how to handle me. I am a people pleaser though and it is really hard for me to say when I disagree. I remember my Mom bringing me to Danuta, holding my hand, and she would go: “Danuta, Erika has something that she needs to talk to you about”.
How supportive were your parents?
Oh my gosh, I realized having coached myself and being the wife of the Olympian, that it is so much easier to be the doer, then the person supporting and watching. I realize that having a talent and ability is just one small thing, one piece of the puzzle but if your parents aren't supportive, or can’t drive you or can’t afford the training or sending you to competition… I was very lucky because my Grandma came to live with us, she was making my special meals, and drive me to the gym. My family believes in team approach, I really believe that I've been successful because my parents, my grandparents, my brother had been so supportive. They say, it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to produce a champion. But it wasn't just my family, it was the entire clubs families who've been so supportive. We just had our reunion recently, and it was great, I am still friends with all these people.

Where do you live now?
This year I live in England, because my husband is going to Oxford University. My husband is a rower, he went to 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

So, I think we should be expecting some highly competitive kids in the family?

Oh, my husband and I were joking, that we should get a grant from the government to make babies! They would have good genes.
Clubs

What did you study after you were done with gymnastics?

I went to the University of Guelph and studied psychology. As an athlete I used to work a lot with a sport psychologists and I really liked that aspect. But it was not fulfilling enough for me, so I also got a  general degree. As I was doing it I realized I really missed dancing and I ended up auditioning for the School of Toronto Dance, they have a professional dance training, I was accepted and did 3 year program in contemporary dance.

So, this is pretty much what you do now?
I do a lot of things: I have my yoga certificate, I love working with kids, teaching dance classes!

Do you have a funny story to share?

I have a scary story – one time I was coming downstairs and flipping my clubs. I threw the clubs and they hit the glass light bulb cover and it broke. Reflexively I just stretched my hand and caught the glass and I had to get stitches. So, try to pick a safe area when you are playing at home with your apparatus.

Do you like to travel?

I do like to travel! I am very lucky that I got to go to so many places. We went to South Africa, Capetown and Johannesburg, and we went to the place called Sun City and we drove to the place where 2 oceans meet. And one of my favorite memories is how we drove around the coast and we stopped at this little beach and had fish and chips out of this newspaper. And we were on the beach and the mountains there and of course because I just had fish and chips Danuta says: “You have to go for a run now!” Normally it would be a torture, but I was running on the beach, and the mountains were there and the ocean, it was just amazing.
Split
Where else would you like to go?

I never got to go to Spain and Italy, or Russia or Ukraine or Belarus!

Where there any gymnasts from those countries that inspired you?

Yes, Maria Petrova, Larissa Lukjanenko, I loved them growing up. Also, I always wanted to go to training camp in Belarus, because of their style, it is different and perky!

Was it hard for you to stay on a special diet?

As I was getting about 15 my body was really starting to change, so it was really challenging at that time. The other thing is, when you are young you are not looking at the big picture, all you can think about is “I really want that cookie, or How come I can’t eat chips”. And when someone tells you “No”, well then you want it even more. It was hard for me for a while. Sometimes, I would come in to the gym and Danuta would look at my face and say: “What did you eat???!!!” It felt like a lot of pressure, but now I have a different attitude. You have to understand that you want those things just because you can’t have them, but it is not a big deal. If you are a race car driver and you are putting fuel in your car, you would put the best fuel possible, because you would want your car to perform and it is really more important in regards of your body, because you only got one and you won’t have another one. I would just encourage everyone, the key is moderation, just have one square of chocolate and realize that fruit is also very delicious. The sport is becoming more demanding and we are athletes and should enjoy the delights of being able to be light to be able to run and jump. It is also about aesthetics, but it is more about the functioning of your body. Unfortunately I had bad knees and if I carry more weight it would put even more strain on my knees.
Medals

What Erika does for fun?
I spent too much time on facebook. I like writing, so I write for my blog. I have so many friends which is such a wonderful blessing, but sometimes it is hard because I can’t stay in touch with everybody, especially now when I am not on the same continent as them. I love dancing, do yoga, work out, watching movies, sharing nice food with friends.

What is home for you?

This is an interesting situation, because I have many homes now. For me it is where my husband and I are, and my cat! I was living in Victoria for couple of years, but all of my family and friends from the past are in Ontario. My Grandma often jokes that for my husband and I world is a home! You know this expression, home is where the heart is!

Thank you very much, Erika! Your story would be a great support and inspiration for all young gymnasts!


All photographs - courtesy of
Erika-Leigh Howard


Summer Camp will be running for another week - feel free to call and register, all levels welcome.
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