Feature | Artistic Gymnastics

Caitlin Rooskrantz: I have broken the Olympic barrier for South African gymnastics 

The teenager who made history by qualifying from the World Championships will be the first female South African artistic gymnast at the Olympics since Athens 2004.

By Evelyn Watta ·

The last time South Africa qualified an athlete for the Olympics in artistic gymnastics, at Athens 2004, Caitlin Rooskrantz was barely three years.

But she grew up enchanted by the Games. As a kid, she would flip and fly around the house and when she joined a gymnastics club at six, she found her forte.

Four years later she said in jest that she ‘wanted to go to the Olympic Games one day’.

What seemed an inconceivable dream has become a reality.

The 18-year-old will become the first woman of colour to represent the rainbow nation in gymnastics at the Olympics.

“It was such a big goal. I never knew what was possible. I never witnessed it ever happening before. I believed that I could break barriers for my country in gymnastics,” she told the Olympic Channel on her Tokyo 2020 qualification.

“For me to have started as a young girl, a person of colour in this sport… I was just doing it recreationally. I didn’t even think that it would go anywhere.It was not known by most of our community because it was predominantly known as a white sport.”- Caitlin Rooskrantz to Olympic Channel.

Gymnastics to check ‘a busy child’

Rooksrantz grew up in a sporty family. Her father played football, while her older brother practised cricket and field hockey. Naturally, her parents decided to get her engaged in physical activity to calm her down.

“I was a busy child. My parents always told me I gave them a lot of stress and anxiety. They could never take their eyes off me because I was always trying to do self-taught flips off my bed,” she recalled of her early days growing up in South Africa's largest city.

“A few of their friends recommended the sport to them, to start as a hobby to check on my energy in a different direction. My parents didn't know what gymnastics was, as it's not a popular sport.”

She may not have remembered seeing Zandre Labuschagne qualify to compete at those Athens 2004 Games, but by the time Odette Richard was given a wildcard to represent South Africa in rhythmic gymnastics at Beijing 2008, Roostrantz' ‘hobby’ was became her way of life.

She quickly rose through the ranks of her local club, the Johannesburg Gymnastics Centre.

Her athletic ability alongside her “deep love and passion” for the sport singled her out as she progressed to junior competitive gymnastics.

“I realised my potential and believed that I could break barriers for my country in gymnastics and together with the many goals that I had set along the way. Something that I was always very passionate about was trying to move gymnastics in South Africa.

Her early success was almost derailed by the death of her father, but Rooskrantz found healing in sport.

“My mother was my pillar of strength. I lost my dad at the age of eight. And at that time, it's when I was also getting into my gymnastics and my mum gave up a lot to see my dream through,” she told the Olympic Channel from her home in from Johannesburg.

“She gave up her full-time job, took up a part-time role so she could be more available to me, and worked around my busy schedule. She made a lot of financial and personal sacrifice in her life to let me chase and follow my dreams.”

The mental dip

By 2016 the child prodigy had made her international debut for South Africa’s junior team in Brussels.

The silver from the Junior Commonwealth Games in Namibia that year confirmed her as one of the rising talents on the bar, after rather tough junior seasons.

“2013, 2014, and 2015, I had disastrous national championships. The first year I suffered a bad knee injury and was completely out of nationals. Then I had a bad hamstring injury. In the third year, I suffered bad ankle ligament, tears in both my ankles and I was sore trying to compete. Once again I had a disaster of a National Championship and I said to my mum, ‘I don't feel like I can do it anymore’, she recollected.

“My mum always told and reminded me, ‘I'm not forcing you to do it. You always told me you love the sport. it's not always the best to end on a bad note with something. You end when you've had a career-high and when you've achieved everything. Not when you are at the bottom’.”

After the mental dip, she managed to pick herself through the rocky patch, and it wasn’t long before the double Bars African champion got the nod to join the senior team.

But injury struck again. She suffered her fifth knee dislocation in two years, that required surgery, and kept her off the bars for most of 2017.

Rooskrantz was declared ‘medically unfit’ for the 2018 Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast.

“A lot of times I almost felt like it was more disappointments than successes, which can become hard and mentally very demotivating, for an athlete. Constantly having to get through injuries more than you kind of reaping the rewards of,” she admitted.

“I was considering even stopping gymnastics as I wasn't getting anywhere, I was kind of moving in one circle. But, knowing what my end goal was, which was to get to the Olympic Games, that always kept me driven. I knew that’s where I wanted to be, so I was not going to stop until I got there.” - Caitlin Rooskrantz on the early carrier injuries.

Caitlin Rooskrantz on breaking barriers for gymnasts in South Africa

The 18-year-old from Johannesburg will be the first female gymnast to repre...

Qualifying for the Olympics at the Worlds

The teenager and her long time coach Ilse Pelser dealt with the disappointment by charting out her path to Tokyo 2020.

“I just did a lot of reflection and visualisation of where I wanted to be. It was a crucial time for me because it was a make or break situation,” said Rooskrantz, who draws great inspiration from Germany’s Elisabeth Seitz, a world bronze medallist who has had multiple surgeries on both feet, and is one of the few female gymnasts in history to compete the Def [an uneven bars release twist].

It was a long shot for an athlete in a sport that is not very popular in South Africa.

But nothing could stop a girl with the right attitude from achieving her goal.

2019 started just right. Rooskrantz made history for her country with an unprecedented win at the FIG Challenge World Cup in Szombathely‚ Hungary in September.

She had qualified fourth in the uneven bars‚ but then stepped up in the final to claim gold.

“My coach told me that, a few of the judges had told her that, ‘if I could neaten up a bit here and there [in the final], I could maybe bag a bronze medal.’ That was what I was going for. And I ended up winning, my first international medal, a gold medal.”

That accomplishment got the recognition it deserved and when she went to the World Artistic Gymnastic Championships in Stuttgart, her fans back home struggled to manage their expectations.

South Africa is the continent’s most successful gymnastic nation. The country has managed to qualify the highest number of gymnasts across disciplines for the Olympics, but most of them had earned their tickets through the African qualifiers.

The South African Olympic Committee has since changed its policy and now deems the continental path for Olympic qualification inadequate for its athletes in individual sports as well as national teams - besides football.

Rooskrantz returned to Germany, where she had previously held several training camps alongside the local national team, for the Worlds last October.

To qualify she had to be ranked in the top 20, and a quarter-final placing at the Worlds would make that possible. She was hopeful but cautious.

“A week later from the world championships, FIG released the official list of the qualifiers and my name was there. My mum and I cried. We just cried. It was such a heartfelt moment,” she said of one of the most significant moments of her career.

“I felt that everything I had persevered through all the setbacks, the many disappointments felt worth it. Everything kind of fell into place at that moment and I could see the puzzle fitting together a bit more and why certain things happened the way they did. I was almost grateful for how my journey had turned out.”

Performing the Olympic routine on August 2

She had planned to take a gap year, avoiding all other work or study, to prepare for the Olympics. That was before the COVID pandemic struck.

South Africa had one of the most stringent lockdowns, which meant for about four months, Rooskrantz couldn’t access the gym, the longest period she has been off the bars in her 12-year career.

“I've been through many injuries and setbacks and not getting chosen for teams and not making it to this competition. But this has been one of the hardest,” she reckoned.

“It was not only physically but mentally challenging. To try and stay motivated, stay in the game, but also to stay physically fit it's hard for a gymnast to keep your fitness and training up when you're not in the gym.”

When the coronavirus restrictions eased, Rooskrantz saw an opportunity to mark her return to the bars in style, with the Olympics postponed to 2021 and several events cancelled due to the pandemic.

The original Tokyo 2020 Games programme had her lined up to perform on August 2 at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre.

On that day a sponsor suggested Rooskrantz live-stream what could have been her Olympic routine.

“It was just an amazing moment for me. I felt like the year was just a very empty year for me. So when [organiser] Sanlam come up with this amazing opportunity for me, it felt like I still had something to work for, a kind of a motivation for me when I came out of lockdown,” she said.

A new wave of South African gymnasts

While Labuschagne was the nation’s last female artistic gymnast at the Olympics in Athens, and rhythmic gymnast Richard competed at Beijing 2008, Rooskrantz achieving her dream against the odds has ignited a new passion for gymnastics down South.

On the men's side too, the sport is on the rise after Ryan Patterson became the first South African male gymnast to qualify for the Olympics in 50 years at Rio 2016.

Rooskrantz is hopeful that her recent achievements can only mean good things for the ‘fringe’ sport that struggles for recognition and financial support.

“In South Africa, the main sports are soccer, rugby, cricket, athletics, they are the common sports that everyone knows about,” she pointed out.

“Those are fully supported and fully funded. A sport like gymnastics, which is so small, a developing sport in South Africa is still coming up in the ranks and is not known by most of our community also because it was predominantly known as a white sport."

What matters most for her now is that her success will continue being an inspiration to many young girls that pack their small club in Johannesburg, and elsewhere. She was recently named the 2020 Emerging Athlete of the year by South Africa’s gsport4girls.

“I believe I have broken that barrier. I look at myself as a young girl when I was coming up in the sport and I knew that I wanted to go forward and had all these goals for myself. And one of them being, to go to the Olympic Games but it was a very farfetched goal.”- Caitlin Rooskrantz to the Olympic Channel.

“There is a lot of young talent coming up. We see it in our gyms, I can just imagine around the country, so I do believe even once we retire, there are lots of potentials and I believe that they will do big things.”