Sergeant’s national ambition

Queen’s student aiming for spot on Canadian men’s squad

Mattie Sergeant trains year-round at the Loyalist Gymnastics Club and with the Canadian senior men’s program.
Mattie Sergeant trains year-round at the Loyalist Gymnastics Club and with the Canadian senior men’s program.

Three years ago, Mattie Sergeant burst onto the Canadian gymnastics scene by winning a national championship. After watching his country fall agonizingly short of the London Olympics, the Queen’s student is focused on an even loftier goal.

Sergeant, PheKin ’13, clinched first place in the 2009 National Open Championships during his last year in high school. The win put him on the shortlist for the Canadian senior men’s team. Since then, he’s vied alongside Canada’s top gymnasts — including veterans of multiple Olympics — for coveted spots in international competitions.

His rise to the top began 11 years ago, when Sergeant started competing with the Loyalist Gymnastics Club. He rebuffed his parents’ initial attempts to steer him towards hockey, instead choosing to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Mike — a national-level gymnast himself.

Without a selfless act from his older brother, Sergeant’s career may never have progressed past an early stage. Mike stopped competing in 2003 to become the head coach at Loyalist for a year before heading off to university.

“If Mike hadn’t dropped his own career, we wouldn’t have had a coach,” Sergeant said. “He allowed the rest of us to keep training.”

In Canada, competitive gymnasts are sorted into one of two streams: provincial and high-performance. While there’s limited movement between streams by the time gymnasts reach early adolescence, there are some exceptions.

With nearly a decade of steady progression through the provincial circuit, Sergeant was admitted to the high-performance stream after winning nationals in 2009.

Due to his advanced age, he was placed in the senior men’s program — the highest level of gymnastics in the country.

Sergeant’s coach at Loyalist is Sasha Jeltkov, a two-time Olympian and former World Cup gold medalist. Boasting nearly 30 years of gymnastics experience, Jeltkov has managed to push Sergeant’s burgeoning career to new heights since they began training together in 2008.

“As soon as he came [to Loyalist], I got into nationals,” Sergeant said. “He basically took me from a provincial-level athlete to a high-performance athlete.”

Although Sergeant’s national championship remains his proudest achievement as a gymnast, he’s furiously pursuing a higher honour: suiting up one day for Canada.

Getting there, he said, is a matter of executing his routines consistently.

“It’s not enough to do big skills — you have to be able to hit them when it counts.”

The Canadian men’s team missed out on the London Olympics by the slimmest of margins, finishing less than half a point back of the final qualifying spot at a test event in January. Nathan Gafuik, a Calgary native that competed for Canada at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, will be the team’s lone representative in London.

Four of the six men who represented Canada at the qualifier are 27 or older. Sergeant believes that the next generation of Canadian gymnasts has the potential to make an even greater Olympic push.

“We’ve got tons of work to do, but the younger guys are getting there, for sure,” he said.

Most male gymnasts peak in their mid-20s, due in part to the reliance on upper-body strength and to the demand that years of rigorous competition has on the body.

By the time the 2016 Olympics begin in Rio, Brazil, Sergeant will be 25.

“If I can get on the national team, [the Olympics] have always been a dream, right?” he said. “You have to make the national team first. Once that happens, then you gotta hope.”

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