After driving for two-and-a-half hours from the gridlocked Johannesburg to Klerksdorp, a small rural town in the north west of South Africa, we accepted we were lost. In the end, an elderly lady had to escort us to a place few know.
The Klerksdorp School of Gymnastics is where you can find Grace Legote, Africa’s leading rhythmic gymnast who is celebrated in Russia but barely known in her own country. Luckily, we found the 23-year-old Legote warming up with four girls, between the ages of six and 12.
“I have been practicing gymnastics here for the past 12 years; it’s sad people do not know about this place. I sometimes meet local people who recognize my face from media but they don’t know my name,” says Legote.
A few days later (at the end of May), Legote and her coach, Tatiana Lavrentchouk-Vizer, were to fly to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, for the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Cup. This is one of the few competitions standing between Legote and her qualification for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Africa’s hopes lie on her slender shoulders.
“When you really want to qualify, you have to be focused and constantly participate in international competitions. You must compete and compete because you improve in each competition. It’s fine if you don’t win it all but you become competitive,” says Lavrentchouk-Vizer.
For Legote, a second year sports management student at Centurion Academy Sports, the lack of money to compete regularly is a major challenge.
“The goal for Grace is to gain more international exposure, which will improve her international experience and ranking. However, traveling overseas comes at a great financial cost, which is a struggle,” says Anna Hartley, a media and publicity officer for the South African Gymnastics Federation.
Legote first represented her country at the Junior Olympics in Australia in 2005. Despite being the youngest competitor in her category, with only two years in the sport, Legote won two gold medals and a bronze. Her three teammates in Australia are no longer involved in the sport because they lacked support.
In November last year, Legote placed 13th, her personal best, in the Rhythmic Grand Prix in Innsbruck, Austria. She scored above 15 in all four of the apparatus – ball, club, ribbon and hoop. The competition featured the world’s best gymnasts and those that finished in the top 12 were paid.
“Previously, I scored around 15 but I really surprised myself in Austria. I improved. I know I can sustain that feat and reach the 19s. That will be awesome for my [Olympics] preparations,” she says.
Lavrentchouk-Vizer agrees. She says Legote is a rare talent because she started at the age of 11, which is late for gymnastics. The ideal age is six.
“She was born for this sport. She’s supple, she’s flexible, and she doesn’t have issues with her body…The sport is very individual, it depends on an individual’s body. Grace is lucky because her body can go on for another three to five years. Whether she makes it or not, that also depends on the support she gets from her trainers and sponsors. As we speak, she’s in good condition for any competition in the world,” says Lavrentchouk-Vizer.
Legote trains for four hours a day, six days a week. She takes a break on Sundays.
Lavrentchouk-Vizer, her husband, Oleg Vizer, and their three-year-old child, came to South Africa from Russia in 1993. They stayed in a few cities, including Johannesburg, while working for rich families. In 1996, they settled in Klerksdorp and opened the school. Oleg teaches artistic gymnastics to a mixed-sex class. Artistic gymnastics is essential for all gymnasts.
“If you throw your body like that, you don’t care about yourself… That’s not good enough… Doggy tail, no, that’s not cute, I want to see a cute doggy tail. Let’s do it again,” shouts Lavrentchouk-Vizer to her students over the classical music.
Legote says her coach is a perfectionist and a loving mother to them. All the girls gave her warm hugs at the end of their session.
Many of her students have represented their country, but some quit after a few weeks. Sibongile Mjekula finished eighth in the Commonwealth Games in 2010, before retiring in 2012 at the age of 24. Palesa Mohlamme is another 15-year-old South African junior with a bright future. In 2013, she kept South Africans glued to their screens when she was a semi-finalist on the TV show SA’s Got Talent.
Lavrentchouk-Vizer spotted Legote 12 years ago.
“I used to come here to watch other kids. One day, I was here as usual and this lady picked me from the crowd and asked me to stretch with her. I guess she wanted to see what I could do. I was asked to come the next day and that’s how it all began,” says Legote.
Lavrentchouk-Vizer’s connection to Russian gymnastics has opened up opportunities for Legote. In February, the Russian Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation hosted Legote for its 80th anniversary celebrations. She was the only African among athletes from Greece, Korea, Italy, the United States, Spain, Japan, Georgia, Israel and Italy.
“The country spent $3 million for the event. That’s how big the sport is in Russia. They don’t get why this beauty, this talent is not supported in South Africa,” says Lavrentchouk-Vizer.
Many in Klerksdorp, the town Legote moved to when she was 11, are oblivious that they have a star in their midst. This is despite her being the ‘sportswoman of the year’ in the North West province. She is the first to win this title in three consecutive years.
Regrettably, this talent is likely to go to waste if the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) does not step up to the plate. If Legote qualifies for the Olympic Games, she’ll have to wait and see if SASCOC decides to let her compete.
“It is very frustrating. I don’t think SASCOC puts in enough money to develop the sport, but I don’t know how they work with the federation,” says Legote.
Tseko Mogotsi, the Chief Operations Officer at the South African Gymnastics Federation, says the sponsorships they have are not enough to send Legote to the Olympics. But Mogotsi says SASCOC has an obligation to sponsor her if she qualifies in the top 20. Legote is in the third tier of SASCOC’s Operation Excellence (Opex) program for funding and support, he says.
Whether this African queen of rhythmic gymnastics will live her dream of competing at the Olympic Games, sadly depends on people with deep pockets rather than her talent.