Abu Dhabi's young gymnasts determined to get back on track after pandemic disruption

For now, coaching remains off-limits to children under 12 as a precautionary measure

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Aspiring young athletes have pleaded to reopen sports clubs and training centres in Abu Dhabi to put their training back on track, parents said.

Promising young gymnast Nosha El Bacha, 11, was on course for a bright future before the pandemic put her training on hold in March.

The young Canadian trained for 20 hours a week at the Little Stars Gymnastics Club in Khor Al Maqta to fulfil her dream of entering the competitive US collegiate programme for athletes.

Nosha was one of a team of young gymnasts due to travel to Malta to compete in her first Federation Internationale de Gymnastique event before the virus forced sporting events to be suspended.

Gymnastics is a very difficult sport and without training on proper gym equipment and coaching, it's hard to progress

Her mother, Joud Zuriekat, worries that eight months of relative inactivity could have done serious damage to her sporting future.

“Nosha is a very promising gymnast and has competed at an international level, but it’s been almost eight months and the girls are still not back training,” said Ms Zuriekat, who is director of Bright Beginnings Nursery in Mushrif.

“Gymnastics is a very difficult sport and without training on proper gym equipment and coaching, it’s hard to progress.

“Our children are desperate to go back.”

Those over the age of 12 have been allowed to return to indoor sports facilities, and training sessions for this age group will resume across the capital, Abu Dhabi Sports Council said on Sunday.

But parents of younger ones are ruing missed opportunities for children to progress during a critical stage of their development.

One mother of a competitive gymnast with hopes of catching the eye of scouts from the US college system said the enforced break could be devastating.

“Gymnasts peak at a young age and need to have reached a certain level to be considered by college scouts,” said the mother, who did not want to be named.

“Before Covid-19, my daughter was on track to reach that level but it will probably take at least a year for her to make up the time she has lost.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, November 2, 2020.   Promising young gymnast,  Nosha El Bacha, 11, was on course for a bright future in the sport until the coronavirus pandemic brought her training to a  halt in March.   
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Nick Webster

Mikaela Moon was on course to make the Australian national gymnastics squad but could return to training only recently, after turning 12 in September.

Her mother, who also did not wish to be named, said the eight-month break had severely hindered her daughter’s skills.

“Her training got cut very abruptly in March and she was only able to do six hours training online for months,” she said.

“She has lost many of her skills, a lot of her strength and confidence, and even now is only able to train 12 hours a week due to a very reduced schedule because of low numbers.

“Other girls who were training as much as my daughter are still not able to come to the gym.

“It is devastating for their potential gymnastic careers.”

While swimming pools, martial arts centres and fitness studios all reopened for recreational users, coaching for younger children remains restricted by Abu Dhabi Sports Council.

Those under 12 are permitted to undertake individual training only in tennis, cricket, cycling, golf and equestrian sports.

Football clubs are also restricted for younger children in Abu Dhabi, but coaching is permitted in Dubai.

Lina Darras, a Palestinian mum of two, said her boys Yousef, 9, and Omar, 7, were desperate to get back on the football pitch.

“They used to play soccer three or four times a week for 90 minutes and then everything just stopped,” she said.

“We see everything else reopening but the gym and soccer for children is still closed.

“It is affecting their lives – not everyone is lucky enough to live in a villa or compound.”

Ms Darras, a dietitian, said frustration, boredom and overeating were problems her sons encountered after their football sessions with the Regional Club in Khalifa City were cancelled.

“My son gained weight during [the past months], and now he needs to get back to sports,” she said.

“Football is something they can do in small groups without any problems.”

The enforced closure of gymnasiums left some businesses teetering on the brink of closure.

While many offered online courses during stay-at-home measures, few continued in the numbers needed to sustain business.

Online gymnastics programmes included a variety of interactive distance learning sessions, but proved limited in the long term.

Coaches said feedback during training was crucial for individual development, as was the use of adequate safety equipment to perform sometimes dangerous routines.

Young athletes who had trained for years were suddenly disconnected from their chosen sports.

Taisa Baydun, founder and head coach at the Little Stars Gymnastics club, said the closure of small coaching businesses would have an impact on the abilities of potential stars.

“Sports is a driver of economic development and has a significant bearing on public health, lifestyle and tourism,” she said.

“With proper precautionary measures in place, individual sports like gymnastics can offer a safe community space for children to stay fit, relieve anxiety and use their energy positively.

“We want to be able to continue to do our part by offering children a place to learn and grow both physically and mentally.

“These are challenging times for everyone, but children especially.

“Our goal is to help bring routine back to our gymnasts’ lives.”