Andrei and Natallia Chuhai

Midland Gymnastics bouncing off an Olympic Springboard

In the first of our series reflecting on the aftermath of the 2020 Olympics Games and its impact on local clubs, THOMAS CONWAY caught up with Andrei & Natasha Chuhai, who run the Midland's Gymnastics Clubs in Nenagh.

The narrative surrounding gymnastics at this year’s Olympic Games was coloured by the last-minute withdrawal of US superstar Simon Biles, whose candid revelations about her mental health earned widespread support from across sport, politics, and broader society.

Beyond the Biles chapter, the Ariake Arena played host to a variety of interesting sub-plots. There was the tragedy of Ireland’s Rhys McClenaghan’s misplaced little finger; the scrupulous precision of Team GB’s Max Whitlock on the pommel horse, resulting in his third Olympic gold medal. Then you had the men’s and women’s team success of the Russian Olympic Committee; and finally, the medal-table dominance of China, which departed the gymnastics centre with four golds, five silvers, and two bronze medals.

Even in a country such as Ireland, where gymnastics sits on the periphery of the sporting spectrum, one could only marvel at the awesome athleticism of the Olympic competitors. So, have all the swings, springs and somersaults inspired a new generation of Irish gymnasts?

It has certainly stimulated a popularity bounce, but it appears that new generation was already in formation long before Tokyo 2020. That is the impression conveyed by Andrei Chuhai, who, along with his wife Natasha, are the creators and owners of Midlands Gymnastics Club, one of Nenagh’s most innovative and impressive sporting ventures.

The club has found a permanent home in Old Castle Brand, Tyone - housing a studio which is, without exaggeration, state-of-the-art. It bears a remarkable contrast to the empty, decrepit warehouse which Andrei and Natasha first walked into in 2015, but years of crafty determination, pan-European outsourcing of equipment, and generous help from friends, have enabled the couple to realise a dream which began in Natasha’s youth, and eventually became a joint-aspiration for her and her husband.

Both natives of Belarus, the couple met while attending university, before settling down in Ireland with their three children. A sporting thread runs firmly through the family. Andrei was previously involved in boxing, but it was Natasha who had the background in gymnastics. She was an elite gymnast in her youth, training for three hours in the morning before school, another three hours afterwards - the whole shebang, everything in. As Andrei explains, the decision to actually establish a club was audacious, but once the opportunity presented itself, they were always going to pursue it. After all, it was their dream.

“It was always Natasha’s dream, to set up a gymnastics club and have something like this,” Andrei said.

“So, when my employers retired, I said, ok, let’s try this, and we started (to build it up) slowly. At first, we had only two mats, one beam - that was all. So, we started very slowly. That was maybe nine years ago, in Lorrha.

“Then gradually, as the club grew, we moved to Nenagh, but we had a lot of work to do just to bring the premises up to the present standard. Everything we did, we did ourselves, with the help of friends. I’m very grateful to those friends because they helped us a lot. It was a dream, and when you have a dream, it drives you forward.”

There were many factors which helped to shape that dream, including a sprinkling of cinematic inspiration. Andrei and Natasha credit the 1989 film, Field of Dreams, as a source of motivation for their own pursuits. Starring Kevin Costner, the Oscar-nominated drama centres on a 36-year-old Iowa farmer, who risks everything to transform one of his cornfields into a baseball pitch, which subsequently attracts the spirits of departed baseball legends.

It may not fit entirely into the mainstream, but gymnastics is surprisingly popular in Ireland, with soaring waiting-lists an obstacle to many would-be participants, a problem which is particularly entrenched in urban areas. In April 2020, these rising levels of demand were documented by Ian O'Riordan in The Irish Times. In reality it paints quite a positive picture in terms of the health of gymnastics in this country - or at least the enthusiasm for it.

Club membership numbers are hovering around the 36,000 mark, although interestingly, 85 per-cent of Irish members are female, compared to a 60 per-cent global average. Midlands Gymnastics Club is geared towards females, and although they may well open their doors to males at some point in the future, Andrei and Natasha have focused on circumventing those long waiting-lists which beleaguer many clubs. They’ve successfully adopted a ‘come and try it’ policy, encouraging girls to taste the sport, see what it’s all about, and then decide whether they’d like to pursue it further.

They run both recreational and advanced groups, catering for children of all ages, from four-year-old minnows to experienced athletes in their late teens, some of whom have evolved with the club and are now beginning to venture into coaching. Elite-level gymnastics can be notoriously harsh. Recent years have seen the emergence of various stories detailing draconian training regimes, emotional trauma, and serious abuse, suffered by some of the most talented and successful athletes in the sport. For too long, talent and vulnerability have gone hand-in-hand. However, both Andrei and his wife share a sporting philosophy which revolves around enjoyment, self-improvement, and a measured sense of discipline.

“You come into train, and you train,” she said.

“If the kids are interested, we like to push them, and they enjoy that. We encourage them to get used to discipline and they are generally very happy with that. The atmosphere is always positive.”

Solid foundation

One of the many banners which adorn the walls of the Midlands Gymnastics Centre states that “Gymnastics provides a solid foundation for all sports.”

When you reflect on what the sport actually entails, that statement makes complete sense. With origins dating back to Ancient Greece, gymnastics could be described as the very essence of athleticism. It promotes more or less every aspect of physical fitness, from balance and agility to flexibility and movement, as well as a host of mental skills like concentration and composure.

During this year’s Olympic Games, the term ‘proprioception’ entered into the popular lexicon as experts sought to explain the difficulties which forced Simon Biles to withdraw from several events. Defined as a person’s ability to sense their own movement and body position, proprioception is crucial to gymnasts, enabling them to gauge the physical orientation of their body and perform the spectacular movements which seem to defy gravity and space.

Like many of the abilities honed by gymnastics, an advanced sense of proprioception could be invaluable to athletes in other sports. Extrapolate it to the hurling field. It takes serious timing and precision to anticipate the flight of the ball, spring from the ground, and elevate yourself to maximum height at just the right moment in order to grab the sliotar. Years of practice are required to master this skill, but a background in gymnastics would surely be a significant asset. Andrei and Natasha actively promote these benefits.

“We get great satisfaction when we see some of our current or former members excelling in other sports - athletics, camogie, soccer, dancing. We’re proud of them,” they said.

Gymnastics has also proven to be a significant asset to many children in a broader, developmental sense. For Andrei and Natasha, watching children develop and flourish, both physically and emotionally, is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of running the club. As Andrei emphasises, every child has individual differences, differences which can sometimes be challenging for them, but Midlands Gymnastics Club is home to a culture of embracing challenges. It’s frenetic but it’s fun. Nobody is excluded. Everybody is embraced.

“Every child is different”, Andrei added.

“We have loads of kids. We have some who might have slight disabilities such as autism or weak bones. But during the session, they’re looking at the others and doing the same as them. They really enjoy having that freedom of movement, and also the discipline. You see, the sessions are one hour, and there is no time to sit down. There are no stoppages, it’s ‘keep going, keep going’. But the kids enjoy that. They’re jumping around, hanging on the bars, flying it. And they’re smiling, they come in smiling, so it’s nice, it’s really nice.”

They come out red-faced, exhausted, and content, having spent an hour living in a world where acrobatics are the norm, and gravity is a forgotten concept. Which muscle has been worked most strenuously? All of them, although if you had to pinpoint one, it would probably be the zygomaticus major - the muscle used to make you smile.