When Ellie Black and Hugh Smith returned from the Canadian gymnastics championships in 2013 with gold medals and Alta won club of the year, it seemed like the Halifax club was at its peak.
“We should have just quit then,” says Mary Kikuchi as she sits at the kitchen table of her son’s home. David Kikuchi, the two-time Olympian, is busy spotting two-year-old Tyler while he does his toddler routine in their Fall River home. Mary was joking, of course, because she and her husband Tak Kikuchi have been doing this for years and can’t imagine doing anything else.
A couple weeks after Smith’s and Black’s double-win, Tak Kikuchi was inducted into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame as a builder. It was another proud day for the club, but like the hundreds of energetic kids that file through their gym every day, the people who run Alta just can’t sit still.
The club’s name is taken from the Olympic motto “citius, altius, fortius,” which means faster, higher, stronger.” So, higher they went.
For several years, the wait lists overflowed with people trying to sign their kids up for the recreational programs at the club’s gym on Bayers Road next to the St. Andrew’s Community Centre.
“We decided to change the schedule to allow more children to come and enjoy gymnastics,” said Tak Kikuchi. They hired more coaches and have nine full-time coaches and 20 part-time coaches, led by three former Olympians. David, an Olympian in 2004 and 2008, and his wife Crystal (nee Gilmore), who competed in Sydney in 2000, are joined by Tak, who coached David at the Olympics.
David and Crystal met while competing for Canada internationally. Mary recalls going to the world championships in Belgium in 2001 and meeting Crystal. “I said: ‘Who’s that girl with Dave? What’s she doing with his hat on?”
Crystal, who is from Cambridge, Ontario, moved to Nova Scotia to study nutrition at Mount Saint Vincent University and coach competitive and recreational gymnasts at Alta. She later married Dave and they competed as a husband-and-wife duo before she joined the club as a coach with the recreational program, which makes up the overwhelming percentage of participants. There are 80 people participating in the competitive gymnastics programs at Alta, but 1,200 in recreational.
Carleen Cavanagh is the head coach of the recreational program at Alta and is part of the club because of another kind of marriage. In the 1980s, Tak and Mary Kikuchi were running Halifax Tumblebugs while Cavanagh and Keiji Yamanaka were operating Maritime Academy. Kikuchi and Yamanaka, who were university teammates in Japan, had both moved to Canada in the early 1970s. The two clubs merged and the club’s foundation was set for years.
While it was solid from a coaching perspective, the building was not. The club’s old gym on South Street, now condemned, evokes memories of those humble beginnings.
Some 25 years later, Yamanaka can say he is the long-time coach of Nova Scotia’s first female Olympic gymnast (Black) while Cavanagh continues to nurture a love for gymnastics.
“Alta has such a great reputation,” says Scott MacDonald, who has two children in recreational gymnastics. “I certainly don’t get the feeling that they’re trying to drive people. Their approach is that it’s going to sort itself out. The kids that are drawn to it are going to go.”
Crystal, who coaches recreational gymnasts, says she’s adopted Carleen’s “child-centred” approach. “She’s very interested in the child as a person and making it a fun
experience and a friendly interaction between coach and child,” Crystal says. “But she also believes in challenging each child, so that they can achieve something that will excite them.”
MacDonald and his wife, Lindsay Linkletter, are in sync with this approach with their kids, eight-year-old Maren and four-year-old Calum. “We like to have our kids doing stuff, but we’re comfortable with once a week,” MacDonald says.
Some are hard-core, though, like Hugh Smith. After returning in 2005 from a church mission in Mexico during which he did not train for two years, Smith had added 40 pounds to his five-foot-eight frame. He would run to and from the gym every training day, an hour each way, to shed the pounds that had to go if he wanted to compete for Canada again. While he was in Mexico, his family moved away, yet Smith still came back to Nova Scotia.
“It was because of Tak and Dave that I wanted to come back,” Smith says. “The Kikuchis took me in as part of their family. I would go over to their house for Christmas.”
Smith appreciated the hospitality, but he also knew that Tak and Dave were the ones who would help him get back on the national team. His loyalty developed long before he left for Mexico. Smith started years ago at Sackville’s Taiso Gymnastics Club when it had a boys’ program. When that folded, he switched to Alta, but Smith would have run to catch a bus after school. After training, Tak Kikuchi would drive Smith and another gymnast to Bedford where their parents would pick them up. This cut down on the travel time. “It was really nice of him,” says Smith, who continued to improve and qualified for his first national championship as a member at Alta.
Smith says he has learned many important life lessons from years of training at Alta with Tak and David. “If I’d have been in a different situation, I definitely wouldn’t have lasted this long in the sport,” he says.
Smith’s commitment helped him return to top form and the 31-year-old has his sights set on the 2016 Olympics in Rio. He could be the third gymnast from the club to make it to the Olympics after David Kikuchi, and Black.
David was born in Truro and was first exposed to gymnastics when Tak Kikuchi coached with the Cobequid Spartans club there. “We just kind of dragged him along to the gym,” says Mary. “He had his cradle in the office and grew up there.”
Mary, who is from Ingonish, met Tak while she was studying physical education at Dalhousie in the 1970s. Tak was already coaching, and when they got married, Tak’s passion for the sport drew Mary. “It was his thing, he needed help,” Mary says. “I got dragged into it, but then it became my thing.”
Over the years, Tak’s received numerous offers to move to other provinces, but, except for a brief stint in Red Deer, he has remained in Nova Scotia. The club has become a family affair. Tak and Mary’s daughter Amy is the office manager at Alta and another daughter, Sarah, has coached. Now, the third generation of Kikuchis is enrolled in the club’s recreational program. They are Dave and Crystal’s children, Jillian and Tyler, and Amy’s kids, Matthew and Luke.
As Alta helps a new generation develop a love for gymnastics, David Kikuchi reflects on how he developed his. “Everything I learned as an athlete, and everything I’m doing as a coach, came from my dad,” he says.
When David was younger, he wasn’t a standout, but he worked hard and focused on the fundamentals. “He was near the bottom. We didn’t have any idea he’d go to the Olympics,” says Mary. But the Japanese tradition of gymnastics, which differs from the more pressure-filled Russian style, paid off, and helped him become an Olympian.
The Russian approach might help some get better scores at competition, but it also tends to drive people away from the sport, Mary says. “I don’t think we tend to lose very many,” she says. Alta has a 90-per-cent retention rate.
When preparing athletes for competitions, Alta coaches also take a more conservative approach, too, selecting routines they know they can do, rather than taking risks. At elite competitions in his career, David Kikuchi showed amazing dependability by completing all 49 routines without a fall.
As a coach, Kikuchi does the same routine. “What I try and do is to put each athlete in the situation where they are most likely to succeed and reach the goals available to them,” he explains.
Alta Gymnastics Club
Founded in 1990 when Halifax Tumblebugs and Maritime Academy merged.
Imagine, believe, achieve.
80 competitive, 1,200 recreational.
David Kikuchi, Ellie Black, Crystal Kikuchi, and Tak Kikuchi.
Feather in cap
Gymnastics Canada club of the year in 2013.
The men’s team that represented Nova Scotia at the Canada Games in Prince George, B.C., was made up entirely of Alta gymnasts and was coached by Tak Kikuchi. Stephen Clouter of Lawrencetown won a bronze in the horizontal bar.