Ottawa gymnast bound for Special Olympics

By Carly Toth

When asked to describe rhythmic gymnast Christina Campbell, coach Sing Jin replies in one word: “Beautiful.”

“ The kind that’s both physical and spiritual,” Jin says.

After training in rhythmic gymnastics for only four years, the 19-year-old Special Olympian will be representing Canada at the upcoming 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai, China.

This will be Campbell’s first international event, and as Oct. 2 gets closer and closer, the anticipation builds.

“I’m so excited to go to Shanghai,” she says. “I’ve never been to Asia, but I love meeting new people and trying new things, so I’m not nervous.”

Campbell secured her position on Team Canada at the 2006 National Summer Games in Brandon, Man., walking away with a remarkable five gold medals and one silver medal.

But the road to success has not been without its ups and downs for the Chesterville, Ont. resident.

Campbell was born with a developmental disability that has kept her between a Grade 2 and 4 academic learning level. She is also a foster child, adopted by the Campbell family at the age of eight.

The Campbells, a family of two biological and three adopted children, have played a significant role in Campbell’s success. The Campbells make the hour-long drive to the Ottawa Rhythmic Gymnastics Club four days a week to support her dream.

“When she first came to live with us, Christina was quiet and withdrawn – all the things you would expect from a child who has a difficult background,” says Campbell’s foster mother Kathy Campbell. “But gymnastics has completely changed her life.”

This was a change Campbell did not expect when she attended her first rhythmic gymnastics class at age 15.

Kathy Campbell says she was simply looking for an individual sport that was at Campbell’s level and with people she could relate to, build friendships with and have success with.

Jin, who has been coaching rhythmic gymnastics for 25 years, says Campbell is the ideal gymnast – she listens, focuses and works hard. Jin attributes Campbell’s success to those fundamental character traits and her amazing self-discipline.

Her rigorous Olympic training schedule consists of four three-hour practices at her gymnastics studio and two physical training sessions each week.

“I’ve met so many people that are very talented but they don’t care to work hard,” says Jin. “Then I look at girls like Christina who have to put in twice the effort to get to the same level. They have disabilities, but they also have goals.”

In Shanghai, Campbell will be performing one-minute routines in rhythmic hoop, ribbon, ball and rope. Ribbon is her least favourite, says Campbell, because it’s tricky keeping the ribbon off the floor.

The Special Olympics offer four levels of rhythmic gymnastics. Campbell will be competing at a level three. At this level, all athletes perform using a standard routine .

Campbell says her goal is to go to the World Championships at a level four because it allows her to be creative in selecting music and crafting her own routines.

In her short time with Special Olympics Canada, Campbell managed to accomplish a great deal not only as an athlete, but also as an ambassador.

This past May, she co-emceed the 2007 Special Olympics Reception with Arnold Schwarzenegger, addressing government officials about the importance of Special Olympics programs in communities throughout Canada.

She was also the recipient of Child and Youth Friendly Ottawa’s Academics Perseverance Award.

“Special Olympics has given Christina opportunities that we, even as a family with all the love and commitment to her, could never have provided,” Kathy Campbell says. “Now, Christina is confident, she can speak in front of people and she is a leader.”

It is for those reasons, Kathy Campbell says, it is her responsibility to promote the Special Olympics.

“The more people know about it, the less ostracism, the less exclusion and the more acceptance people with developmental disabilities will have,” she says. “If we can hook them through sports, people with disabilities can build a variety of skills they might not naturally have.”

When asked about the future, Campbell says she wants to continue gymnastics, at least until her Mom refuses to drive her to practice. After that, the already accomplished rhythmic gymnast plans on establishing a Special Olympics dressage program in Canada, so she can compete with her horse, Pecan, on the world stage.