x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Balancing life and sport

A former Romanian gymnast teaches a premier children's programme in Abu Dhabi, writes Amith Passela.

Gabriela Ostojic teaches gymnastic at Raha International School in Abu Dhabi.
Gabriela Ostojic teaches gymnastic at Raha International School in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // Gabriela Ostojic knows the inevitable heartache that awaits all but a few gymnasts who compete at the international level. The Romanian dreamt of representing her country at the Olympic Games, standing proudly on top of the podium with a gold medal around her neck as her national anthem was played.

She was a successful athlete, having won an international competition in Italy on her 14th birthday. But the competition in her home country, a gymnastics hotbed, was intense, and she never reached the Olympics. By the time she was 17, Ostojic knew her competitive days were over. "The opportunity to participate at the national level was offered to me, but my family and I decided not to pursue on it," said Ostojic.

"Family became my priority. With that said, the thousands and thousands of hours I spent with gymnastics was not a waste because that part of my life made me the person I am now. "I truly appreciate the experience and enjoyed every minute of it, which is why I am giving back to the sport which gave me so much throughout my life." Like many former gymnasts who are faced with giving up a sport that has been part of their daily routine since an early age, she turned to coaching.

Now 33, Ostojic leads a small group of coaches hired to give the Libra Academy at Raha International School the premier gymnastics programme in the capital. The academy is backed by the school's physical education department and is intended to supplement gym classes and the after-school programme. About 100 children, mostly girls from the age of three to 11, take gymnastics classes at the academy.

Ostojic, who began gymnastics at the age of four, said an early start is crucial to success. "Four is the ideal age, but we have students as young as three turning up," she said. "It depends on their maturity, and starting at three isn't a problem. "Of course to become a top gymnast, one will have to work harder and spend more time, and we can create the facilities. They will have to work six days a week and six hours a day, but that's for those who may want to reach the top level."

Ostojic first came to Abu Dhabi to assist Dean Johnstone at the British School Al Khubairat more than five years ago. She inherited the class from the British coach, who moved to Dubai. She still coaches at the school, in addition to her job at the Libra Academy. She works with four fellow Romanians she recruited, all of them former gymnasts. They started with two sessions per week, and then introduced a Saturday class for beginners. They are already oversubscribed.

A spokeswoman for the Libra Academy said gymnastics is part of an extensive after-school programme at Raha International. "Besides the sporting activities like gymnastics, tennis, swimming and football, we also have music for the kids," said Kim Ashworth, the academy's marketing and communication manager. "We felt kids didn't have much to do after school and came with this concept to provide it to them in various forms.

"Gymnastics is one of the more popular activities and something that had been a void for the community. "It has really drawn the kids since we came aboard. Obviously, we are looking forward for the sport to grow and expand it to other schools." Ostojic said she believes gymnastics is an ideal sport for young children. "No other sport develops the core strength of the body [as does] gymnastics," she said. "It is a great base for any other sports. And kids love it."

The gymnastics programme at Libra is just over a year old, and Ostojic believes the sport will continue to grow. "Compared to some other countries, gymnastics is new and not well-known in Abu Dhabi," she said. "I see a lot of potential for it to grow." Her enthusiasm has spread to the children. "I intend to continue until I'm 20!" said Kira, a 10-year-old. "All my chosen sports revolve around gymnastics as this helps with the strength in my muscles.

"I think it's good training but I think we should train harder. I would like to push myself harder as I don't think I'm improving as much as I could." Catherine, age six, was excited about gymnastics, too. "I love the teachers. They help us work on the routines and jumps," she said. "My lessons are for two hours, but I would like to do more, so that I can practice my routines on the beam to get better."

The word is spreading among children. "I joined because my friend was doing it," said Skye, who is six. "There are lots of things to do in gymnastics. I like the bars especially for swinging. I have done it for six months and hope to do it more and more because I like it." Ostojic will soon have at least one more pupil in her class. Her first child is due early in September. "It is good for the baby, and for sure he will join the classes," she said. "You can count on that." apassela@thenational.ae

What: Libra Academy classes When: Sundays and Thursdays. Where: Al Raha International School, Abu Dhabi Timings: 4-5pm for beginners, 5-7pm for intermediate and advanced Fees: Dh50 per hour Information: academies@libra-uae.com 055 922 8362