Peter Stanford meets some gymnasts with a remarkable story
IT was a fairly average day for 13 year old Georgina Flume and her five team mates last Sunday. They gave a display of their skills as gymnasts — with both group exercises in coordination and athleticism, and individual contributions of agility and grace set to music — before an audience that was soon enraptured by their poise and skill. They were greeted with tumultuous applause, congratulated by the celebrities present, and snapped by the waiting photographers. All part and pared of being a talented young athlete in a society that values sporting prowess. The only difference is that Georgina and four of her team mates have Downs Syndrome.
The occasion for their display was the opening of the Mike Heaffey Centre, a sports and rehabilitation complex at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital at Stanmore in Middlesex. The charity Aspire has raised some £2 million to build this unique centre which is attached to the hospital's spinal unit.
Georgina was a "problem child" before she discovered her natural athleticism and grace. Wingate House's director, Dave Rozzell, national coach for special needs of the BritishAmateur Gymnastics Association, first met her in 1984 when he was asked to go along to a special school with a view to including some of the pupils there in a class he ran at a local sports club.
"One particular child stood out from the rest in as much as she would not sit still. It took two people to hold her down. She obviously thought there was much more to life than sitting still." The child was, of course.
learning situation." With that in mind he initially decided against including Georgina in his gym classes. It was only when her mother appealed to him that he changed his mind.
But group sessions were not the right environment for Georgina, he soon discovered. He opted instead to give her extra classes, individual attention, and began by sitting cross-legged on the floor opposite her. He stared into her eyes for what seemed like hours on end until she would stare back, would concentrate, would focus her attention. Success came when she would stare him out. It was only then, Dave recalls, that Georgina's ability to learn emerged, and she revealed her talent as a gymnast.
And indeed hers is a very real talent. Just because Downs Syndrome has reduced Georgina's potential in one area of her life does not mean that it must be so of every part. Her physical capacity is unimpared.
The display staged by the team from Wingate House at the Mike Heaffey Centre was followed by one from a local gym club. The skills demonstrated by the two groups were comparable. There is no sentiment in the status special gymnastics has achieved. It has been won by the dedication and talent of its coaches and performers. In spite of their disabilities, they have worked to gain respect and admiration for their abilities.
The base for this travelling group of athletes is the Wingate House Centre in Chesire. All six live at home with their families nearby, and train with Dave Rozzell at the centre, a former isolation hospital in a rural setting near Nantwich.
Not all the special needs youngsters who come along match the achievements of Georgina. She is clearly very special. But while they may not become world ranking gymnasts, they do receive a basic training in a sport that coach Dave Rozzell holds is the basis for all others and in the process an understanding of the movements of their own bodies. So children who once dragged one foot when they walked for no other reason than they have never been helped to overcome that lack of control, develop basic coordination.
The centre is a charity. Although it does get some help from education authorities, it relies for its pioneering work on the public's generosity to continue to help youngsters like Georgina grow up, confident, Georgina. out-going adults.
As Dave points out though," Wingate House is at Wrenbury if a child is not prepared to sit Hall Drive, Wrenbury, still there can be no Nantwich, Cheshire CW5 8ES. concentration, and if there is no (0270 780456). Aspire is at concentration there can be no .51cintriore, Middx (01 954 0701).