Olympic Fever just swept the world, and while all eyes were on London, one local woman looked back on her time at the Olympics with pride and nostalgia.
Ernestine “Ernie” Russell calls Mesquite home now. Born and raised in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, Russell competed in the summer Olympic Games in both 1956 and 1960. She is widely regarded as the first female gymnast to represent Canada in the Olympics.
Russell’s mother taught dance, and she grew up learning ballet. She didn’t, however, have the body necessary for it. A neighbor, teacher Bernie Newman, had formed a boy’s gymnastics team and he suggested that Russell try the trampoline. Russell admits that she “got on and never got off.” After she attended an acrobatic camp as a young girl, she said the writing was on the wall. “I was an acrobat, not a ballerina.”
At just 17 years old, Russell competed in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia
“We had a TV, but I’d never watched the Olympics before so I didn’t know what to expect,” Russell explained. “What I remember most about Melbourne is walking into the stadium and the sounds of the crowd. It was amazing.”
Although not as well-prepared as she would have preferred to have been, Russell still did well at her first Olympic Games, scoring less than one point behind the gold medal winner.
“I was young and naive. I had hardly ever lost until then. I was really one fall behind the all-around champion, but it took me years to look back and see that. I just knew I didn’t win and I was unhappy with that,” Russell said.
From 1954-1960, Russell was the winner of the Canadian Gymnastics Championships. She competed in the 1958 World Championships in Moscow for Team Canada. In the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago, she won five first place medals, making her the first Canadian medal winner in an international gymnastics competition. She was also the all-around champion in gymnastics in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in 1955, 1958 and 1959.
In 1960, Russell was invited to participate in the Olympic Games in Rome. She fell short of a medal once again, but she definitely made her mark as a gymnastics force to be reckoned with.
Russell entered Michigan State University on an athletic scholarship in 1957 and graduated with a degree in physical education. She taught high school for five years and then moved on to the university level. She began a gymnastics program at Clarion State College (now University) in Clarion, Pa., and taught there for 10 years. At Clarion, her gymnastics team was 58 for 58 and was never beaten in dual meets.
Following her time at Clarion, Russell went on to even bigger things. In 1979, she became the Head Women’s Gymnastics Coach at the University of Florida. During her 13 years in that position, her teams amassed 243 wins against 48 losses in dual meets, made 11 consecutive NCAA Championship appearances and won one national title. One of her students at the University of Florida was Elfi Schlegel, one of the best gymnasts in Canada’s history, and now an Olympic Games broadcaster for NBC Sports.
Russell said she is proud of her efforts in helping to develop the South East Conference (SEC) gymnastics programs, selling the sport of gymnastics and getting fans in the gyms: something she credits her second husband in assisting her with.
“We outsold men’s basketball at the University of Florida for years. The stands were full,” Russell said. She also was the assistant coach of women’s gymnastics at Utah State University before retiring in 2007.
However, Russell didn’t just limit herself to coaching college gymnastics. In 1980, she was the head coach for the 1980 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, an assistant coach on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team and the head coach of the 1978 U.S. World Championship team. She served as the head coach of the World University Games in both 1977 and 1985.
Russell also authored the book, “Gymnastics for Girls and Women,” in 1969, which was considered a handbook on emphasizing ballet in the sport, rather than stunts.
After retiring from Utah State University in 2007, she regularly commuted from her home in Utah to Las Vegas to coach gymnastics at a gym there, occasionally stopping in Mesquite for a meal.
During one of those meals, fate intervened in the form of a friend who knew about the Flex It gymnastics program in Logandale. “One day the phone rang and my friend said ‘Ernie, I got you a job.’ I went over and checked it out and started working there,” explained Russell. “I was working in both Las Vegas and Logandale for a while, and then was able to quit the Las Vegas job and work solely at Flex It.”
Flex It Gymnastics recently made the move to Mesquite, and classes are offered through the Mesquite Recreational Center Athletic and Leisure Services Department.
Russell currently works with the Flex It competition team. She said loves her job of helping train future gymnasts at Flex It.
“It amazes me because they’re learning so fast. They’re all such wonderful kids, and I love working with them,” said Russell.
“It’s great working with Ernie. She is very knowledgeable in gymnastics and without her the girls would not be advancing in their skills like they are,” stated Jessica Bucklin, Flex It Gymnastics Director.
Ernie has one daughter and a grandson who live in Florida. When she’s not coaching gymnastics at Flex It, Russell said she loves to knit and read. She has recently ventured into the world of digital scrapbooking and enjoys that project as well.
The world is just returning to normal after the 2012 Olympic Games in London, but in Mesquite youngsters under Russell’s guidance in the Flex It program still are benefitting from the Olympic Spirit.