Rhythmic Gymnast, Shannon Gardiner, is hoping to get back in top shape after suffering a knee injury that almost ended her already sparkling career.
In October 2019, Gardiner had returned from the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships and went on to compete at the SA Gym Games. She was in the best shape of her life after putting in years of hard work and effort and she believed it was her time to finally shine.
During her third rotation at the competition in Durban, she completed one of her signature moves – an illusion – and suddenly heard a click in her knee. Being the professional athlete that she is, Gardiner continued with her routines, making all four finals and placing second overall – with a torn lateral meniscus in her right knee!
Life changed for Gardiner as she went through surgery, learnt how to walk, jump, leap and turn again, basically starting from square one, as her right leg is her dominant leg. She also began training again in late January 2020.
Gardiner went on to compete in the African Championships in Egypt in her first tournament after going through rehabilitation, with hopes of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. Unfortunately, she placed fourth overall due to a drop in her hoop routine and missed out on qualifying for the prestigious event.
Gardiner has not been deterred by her setback and she is determined to fight for her place, and qualify for the 2022 Commonwealth Games and the 2024 Olympic Games.
She regards the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, as well as the 2018 and 2019 World Championships as her biggest achievements.
Speaking with Celine Abrahams, Gardiner chats about how she developed a love for Gymnastics, her biggest disappointments and what keeps her motivated on her bad days.
Shannon, welcome to gsport and thank you for taking time out for us. Please tell us who you are and what sport you are involved in?
My name is Shannon Gardiner and I am a South African, 6th year senior Olympic Rhythmic Gymnast. I am 20 years old and I have been doing gymnastics since the age of 5. I am a third year BCom Law student at the University of Pretoria and an athlete at TuksSport. I competed at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, numerous World Cups all over the world, the 2018 World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, and the 2019 World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan.
What made you choose gymnastics as your choice of sport?
When I was little, I was in a shop and I saw the 2004 Olympic Games playing, and immediately, the sport of Rhythmic Gymnastics caught my eye. My mom said I did not stop nagging her telling her, “Mommy, I can do that, I can do that!” Of course, like any mom would she just thought it was kids being kids and she ignored it. From that moment onwards I would not stop nagging her about how I can do what those girls did on TV.
So, she started looking for a club that offers the sport. We did not find Rhythmic but found Artistic and therefore I started artistic gymnastics. After a year we saw my current coach Nina Ervedosa teaching her gymnasts in the same hall the Ribbon apparatus. I immediately started up in Rhythmic and continued both sports simultaneously until I decided I wanted a professional future in Rhythmic Gymnastics, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life!
Do you have any interests in any other sports?
I have an interest in Figure Skating, Ballet and dancing, I am more of an individual sporting person as I work well on my own and I think that I would be great in Figure Skating as it is a lot like Rhythmic Gymnastics just without the stress of having to catch your apparatus and it is truly such a beautiful sport to watch. I prefer more cultural sports which involve emotion and performance as I love to perform.
What was your first competition and what was it like?
My first competition was a normal club competition and it was probably the most stressful and exhilarating moment of my life. I remember my coach gave me the responsibility of standing in the front as the lead, as young gymnasts, some girls would forget the routines and therefore it was like a group dance but all in sync doing the same routine but being judged individually. I am left-handed and she forced me to learn the entire routine with my right hand in order for the girls to copy me after I learnt the entire routine with my left hand.
“It was one of the best moments of my life and it really sparked the path of my competitive career and from then on out it was uphill.” – South African Youth Olympic Gymnast, Shannon Gardiner
It was otherwise a very successful competition and I remember I got first place for the ribbon exercise and first place for the ball exercise and first place overall with achieving highest score of the whole club competition. It was one of the best moments of my life and it really sparked the path of my competitive career and from then on out it was uphill.
What has been the hardest part of your career?
One of the hardest parts of my career has been the pressure to succeed and to be the perfect image of a Rhythmic Gymnast. As a gymnast we have to constantly be in peak condition no matter what and how we look aesthetically is a big part. We constantly have to be training hard and watching what we eat as, as soon as you stop, your performance is no longer in top shape.
A big event that happened to me was my knee surgery in late October 2019, I had just come back from the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships and I was on an absolute high! As soon as I landed I flew straight to Durban for the SA Gym Games 2019, I was ready to perform and compete coming from the biggest competition in my sport besides the Olympic Games, I was in the best shape I have ever been in my life after putting in years of hard work and effort, it was my time to finally shine.
I competed in the All Around competition the first day and I had clean routines for the first two rotations, on my third rotation, which was ribbon, one of my best apparatus’, and half way during my routine I did what is called a mastery with an illusion which is one my signature moves and I heard a click in my knee, I brushed it off and carried on and finished my routine, as I presented and walked off the carpet I felt a slight pain in my knee but nothing serious and I grabbed clubs, my last apparatus of the day.
As I readied myself in my starting position, I was confident and began my first move which was a jump directly off my right leg and then I felt the most excruciating pain of my life! I carried on as if nothing happened as I was taught by my Bulgarian coach, you don’t stop until the last second no matter what, I completed the routine with doing numerous movements which put direct stress on my knee and I finished the competition. I made all 4 finals for the next day and placed 2nd overall.
The following morning, I woke up and attempted to stand up and I couldn’t walk, I could not apply an ounce of pressure on my right leg without experiencing numbing pain. Unfortunately I could not compete and rumours circulated about my absence which turned into bad sportsmanship on my behalf, little did I and anyone else know that I tore my lateral meniscus in my right knee and I was due for a life changing experience, after two consultations with knee surgeons one being Dr Pelser one of the best knee surgeon’s in SA, my only option was to end my career or have a surgery and hope that my knee will return to the way it originally was. I was told that my recovery could either be 3 months or 6-8 months depending on the severity of the tear and whether they could repair it.
This was the worst timings ever as I was training for the African Championships that happened in March 2020, which was the Tokyo Olympics qualifier. I proceeded with the surgery and after months of physio and rehab I learnt to walk again, jump, leap and turn, basically I started from square one as my right leg is my dominant leg.
It was one of the most humbling experiences I have ever had and my chances of making the team were zero to nothing until Maureen van Rooyen took a chance on me based on my previous performances and as I had already qualified for African Championships 2020 Olympic Qualifier at the World Championships 2019. I was only able to start training again in late January and I flew overseas to my other coach in Bulgaria to try and go from 0 to 100!
I improved a lot and used the resources I had overseas, and I came back two weeks later looking like a different person! Everyone could not believe the improvement I had made. One month later I competed in the African Championships in Egypt and I came 4th overall due to a drop in my hoop routine which cost me the podium position and unfortunately did not qualify for the Olympic Games.
Are there any other sports that you are involved in or interested in pursuing?
I would definitely love to try Figure Skating and synchronised swimming they look like extremely difficult sports and I love a challenge. They are both so elegant and require a lot of dedication and passion in the sport like Rhythmic Gymnastics.
What was it like balancing education and still trying to develop a sporting career?
It is extremely difficult sometimes! I am currently a 3rd year BCom Law student at the University of Pretoria, juggling my studies and training professionally at the same time is quite a challenge but I have done it my entire life and truly it has forced me to use my time wisely as when I have to work, I work! I believe gymnastics has given me a discipline like no other and I truly think it has actually made me work harder to achieve the impossible and I have, as I am still excelling and almost completing my first degree at the end of this year and will be graduating with my BCom degree with the class of 2020 and ready to continue my LLB next year to attain my second degree.
How has your family supported your journey so far?
My family has done the world for me and without them I would not be where I am today. Both my parents have given up so much for me to achieve my dreams, from my dad giving me all the opportunities financially as I am not financially supported by my federation or government and to my mom staying up for hours gluing crystals on all my leotards in order for them to shine when I’m on the carpet.
“My mom has also been there as the biggest driving factor, she has helped me through my most difficult times in my sport and no matter what she has been at my side to support me and help me to keep strong no matter what!” – Gardiner speaks on her mother supporting her during her tough times.
My mom has also been there as the biggest driving factor, she has helped me through my most difficult times in my sport and no matter what she has been at my side to support me and help me to keep strong no matter what! She is my best friend and my truest supporter and without her I wouldn’t be who I am today. I have two sisters and although my sport creates conflict between them, my parents and I, they are still there to lend a helping hand when times get tough with motivational speeches.
How do you keep yourself motivated, especially on your bad days?
Bad days are normal in a sport like mine as sometimes you think your apparatus hates you and only wants to run away and this is when the going gets tough with the constant repetition over and over. I train for 4 hours a day and it is difficult to keep yourself going for all those hours especially if you are dropping or not performing well and you are tired.
I always take days like those as more of a mental training than a physical training as this could happen at competition and you can’t just give up, so why give up in training as I believe you train like you are at a competition. One thing I think to myself during these moments, is how much hard work and time I have dedicated to get where I am, and giving all of that up for one bad day of training is not worth it, as one bad day can lead to hundreds of successful competitions and training as you learn for your mistakes and to concentrate no matter what happens.
What is your greatest sporting ambition?
The Olympic Games is any sportswoman’s dreams! My dream is to compete at the Olympic Games as well as the Commonwealth Games. I qualified for the Youth Olympic Games in 2014 and that was one of my greatest achievements as well as competing at the 2018 and 2019 World Championships. I want to qualify for the Commonwealth Games in 2022 and be able to represent my country at such a prestigious event, and depending on my career choices, qualifying for the 2024 Olympic Games.
What have been your biggest disappointments so far in your career?
Besides not qualifying for the Tokyo Olympic Games due to my knee surgery, one of my biggest disappointments was not being able to go to the Commonwealth Games in 2018. I qualified first place for the Games but due to unclear submissions of applicants, only one competition was taken into consideration and unfortunately, I did not compete due to an injury, thus, not being chosen to compete.
Do you have any other career plans that you would one day want to venture into?
I am currently studying law and I would love to work at a law firm one day representing sportsmen and sportswomen giving them fair and equal opportunities. I would also love to coach other gymnasts and help them grow into the best possible versions of themselves and lead on the paths I was lead on, into greatness and as Olympic hopefuls as Rhythmic Gymnastics is not a well-known sport in South Africa and diversifying the sporting opportunities to girls all over SA is a dream I want to accomplish as it is such a beautiful sport.
What is the best advice that you could give to other young athletes who are finding it difficult to make their dreams a reality?
As our greatest nations leader once said, “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.” – Nelson Mandela. No matter what comes your way or what obstacles are thrown at you, believe in yourself and never let go of your dreams, you are your only limit and never forget that, if the going gets hard remember if it was easy anyone could do it!
A quote that I have been told since I was little and has been such an influence in my life is, “A flower never competes with another flower, it just blooms!” Never forget, if it is meant to be it will cross your path and if it doesn’t, it just means God is saving you for something better!
As June is Youth Month, who are your favourite South African youth athletes and why?
I would say, one of my friends, Caitlin Roonskrantz, she is such a kind soul and truly doing wonders for the sport of Gymnastics as a whole, although she is an Artistic Gymnast. I admire her hard work, dedications and achievements. Through all she has achieved she is still the same humble girl who will have an in-depth chat with you and that is a great trait to have.
Photo 1 Caption: Rhythmic Gymnast, Shannon Gardiner, is hoping to get back in top shape after suffering a knee injury that almost ended her already sparkling career. Photo: Supplied
Photo 2 Caption: In October 2019, she had returned from the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships and went on to compete at the SA Gym Games. Gardiner was in the best shape of her life after putting in years of hard work and effort, she believed it was her time to finally shine. Photo: Supplied
Photo 3 Caption: During her third rotation at the competition in Durban, she completed one of her signature moves – an illusion – and suddenly heard a click in her knee. Being the professional athlete that she is, Gardiner continued with her routines, making all four finals and placing second overall – with a torn lateral meniscus in her right knee! Photo: Supplied
Photo 4 Caption: Life changed for Gardiner as she went through surgery, learnt how to walk, jump, leap and turn again, basically starting from square one as her right leg is her dominant leg. She also began training again in late January 2020. Photo: Supplied