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Ellie Black

From The VAULT: OptiMYz Magazine – Volume 14, Issue 3

Ellie Black has beaten the odds as she embarks on her third trip to the Olympics – and at 25, she’s better than ever.

ELLIEBeing the best at anything is hard enough – staying the best is harder. That’s what makes Ellie Black’s career so unlikely. You’d have to look back 50 years to find another Canadian gymnast who has attended three consecutive Olympic Games, and that happened only once.

Black has been the leader of the Canadian National Team for the better part of a decade and is by far the best gymnast to emerge from the true North. In a sport that has traditionally been dominated by teenagers that burn out quicker than you can say “stick it,” Black, 25, has played an integral role in normalizing adult, mature bodies that are able to stick around, clearly, as long as they want to.

Black launched her career in reverse when she burst onto the gymnastics scene for the 2012 London Olympics, a relative unknown on the international stage. She followed that up with appearances in the World Championships and Commonwealth Games and turned her focus towards Rio in 2016. By then she was a mainstay in the top tier of elite gymnasts, squarely in the middle of the all-around conversation.

In 2017 she became the first Canadian to win a medal in the world gymnastics championships on home soil, in Montréal (at a meet historically dominated by the powerhouses – USA, Russia and China), and in 2019, she became back-to-back Pan American Games champion.

In arguably one of the most difficult sports in the world – mentally and physically – Black’s positive attitude and unique approach to her training has been the key to her longevity. And she’s not just hanging around for fun – she’s getting better.

In this Q&A, she shares with us how she does it and how you can “microdose” a little Ellie Black into your daily health and wellness regime so you can stay motivated, overcome challenges, and start seeing constant improvement.

CAN YOU TAKE ME THROUGH A TYPICAL DAY IN YOUR LIFE WHEN YOU’RE TRAINING?

Ellie: A typical day would be to wake up in the morning and start my day with breathing, then have a good breakfast. My mom always told me that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It’s good to start your day off fueling properly and making sure you have energy for the day that comes.

Some days I do a workout and then I have training, and others I just have gymnastics training, but that usually takes up a good chunk of the day. It’s important to pack snacks, make sure I have nutrition and fuel to keep me going at training throughout practice or post-recovery.

At the gym, I start with mobility and injury prevention. We then do our basic warmups and then each apparatus training for a specific goal or an amount of time. We finish off the day with conditioning and then stretching. Some days I have an artistry session at the end of training and some days I have a Pilates session.

After training, I usually have some kind of meeting or physio appointment. I’ll usually have some on-the-go nutrition ready for me to head off to whatever that looks like, whether it’s physio or mental performance.

I round out the day by coming home and making a good dinner, making sure that I’m doing my proper recovery, which is either compression, ice buckets for my ankles or icing if there’s anything injured on my body. Then I take some time to wind down, whether that’s watching Netflix, reading a book, listening to music or just talking with my family.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO PREPARE YOURSELF MENTALLY?

Ellie: I’ve been working with a sports psychologist for a really long time. I’ve worked with her for all sorts of different scenarios, whether that’s overcoming fears, overcoming injuries, helping with competition preparation, helping with mindset, and handling stress and pressure.

I have a lot of practice from years of overcoming many different obstacles. The mental preparation this past year has been very different too, because it has been so uncertain. There’s been a lot of work towards handling different scenarios, being adaptable, persevering when things take a turn, or the city goes into lockdown. Those kinds of situations.

HOW DO YOU SET AND ACHIEVE GOALS?

Ellie: I think goal setting is fundamental for everybody – athlete or not – to be able to see progress and feel accomplished.

You can have large goals that might be years away, but you need to have so many other small goals set along the way, whether those are daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly. That way you can have a plan for achieving those huge goals – because those big ones can be very daunting.

IT’S THE SAME THING IN PERSONAL LIFE. I HAVE THESE BIG GOALS FOR MYSELF, BUT HOW AM I GOING TO REACH THEM?

Ellie: By creating a plan made up of small goals and creating a path to help lead me there. Those small goals are so important because that’s what gives you that daily motivation. The most beautiful thing about goals is that they’re open-ended. They can always change. Even the big goals can be adapted.

HOW DO YOU RESET WHEN AN OBSTACLE OR CHALLENGE DERAILS YOUR TRAINING PLAN?

Ellie: You really have to just accept what’s happened, because it’s out of your control, and focus on the things that are in your control. Every day do one thing that’s going to help you to get better, whether that’s one degree of mobility more in your ankle or getting out of bed and just walking.

For me, it’s just really having that positive mindset because getting stuck in that negativity is hard. When the Olympics got postponed a year, I was on the mend [from an ankle injury]. It was definitely a time crunch to be back as strong as I would have liked to be in 2020. It was kind of a silver lining. Instead of focusing on the things that could go wrong or may happen, I used it as an opportunity to rest, get stronger and potentially be better than I would have been.

I have been through a lot of ups and downs throughout my career – a lot of hardships and injuries. I’ve learned that it doesn’t always go to plan and that’s okay. It’s about being adaptable and being able to change the plan and be okay with that. It’s never going to be an ideal situation. If you can be adaptable and open-minded, you’re going to have a better chance of being successful than others who are going to have a hard time hitting that reset button.

WAS THERE EVER A TIME THAT IT CROSSED YOUR MIND TO GIVE UP?

Ellie: For me, at the end of the day, I still had that mindset of no matter what was happening that I was going to keep going and keep pushing.

That being said, I had a mental block for almost six months, after the Olympics were postponed, on one skill on bars. That’s probably the longest time I’ve ever had a mental block on that skill. There were days where I was like, “What if I can’t get over this?” There were days where I did have those thoughts of, “Is this going to get better?”

I wouldn’t say that I ever seriously considered giving up. For me, that wasn’t really an option because it’s not even just the Olympics. I love doing gymnastics.

YOU’RE GOING TO YOUR THIRD OLYMPICS. TO WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE YOUR LONGEVITY?

Ellie: I had a very different experience growing up compared to a lot of elite athletes – I peaked late. I learned hard skills in my adult body rather than having to relearn them all after going through puberty. I didn’t train as much when I was younger. We trained after school – I didn’t miss school. That was way less than a lot of other girls at the time.

I think a lot of it was just not burning myself out at a young age, not over-training. Then as you get older, you learn so much about your body. You know how much you need to do in training. You understand quality over quantity. Some days you have to do more, but some days you can do less.

I had a great team around me, looking out for me and helping me achieve my goals. My coach always had me doing unique skills – skills that worked for me and were different and stood out. I really appreciate that because I think that is something that was missing in the sport.

After the last Olympics, I had goals I wanted to achieve, and I still felt like I could help my team in the next few years leading up to Tokyo. So here we are, a third Olympic Games, really trying to show what Team Canada can do and what we can achieve.

HOW IMPORTANT ARE NUTRITION AND REST FOR YOU?

Ellie: When you’re in the gym, your brain has to be hyper-focused all the time. It’s exhausting. So when you’re out of the gym, when you get home, it really hits you and you’re like, “Oh my goodness. I feel like I didn’t even do anything today, but here I am exhausted.”

I’m an athlete who really believes in healthy balanced nutrition. It’s important to be knowledgeable about nutrition. I love cooking and I think that allows me to understand what I need in my body.

I’ve worked with a nutritionist, learning those things that are going to really help you in your performance and recovery. Good nutrition fuels your body. You want to treat your body the way you want to feel. If you want to feel good, you treat your body with nutrition and rest. The same goes for sleep. Your body can’t function with the amount of energy you’re taking from it if you can’t give it that amount of rest back.

These things are big in preventing injury. If you’re sleep-deprived, if you don’t have enough water, if your nutrition isn’t good, you don’t have the energy. Those all become red flags for injury, and especially in gymnastics, preventing injury is key because what we do is very difficult. It’s dangerous.

It’s all about fueling your body and it’s important to look at it that way and know that your body is unique. You’re not going to look the same as every other athlete on the competition floor and that is okay. Your body allows you to do the unique skills that you’re able to perform. I wouldn’t be able to do the vaults I can do without my strong legs.

HOW DO YOU TAKE A BREAK FROM THAT INTENSITY? WHAT DO YOU DO OUTSIDE THE GYM?

Ellie: It’s super important to take those breaks, whether that’s going outside for a walk with my dog or spending time with my friends. I love music, so I like listening to music. I love to cook and bake in the kitchen. I grew up doing that with my dad.

Being on the East Coast, being outside, being near water. I love nature. Listening to the birds, listening to the wind. Just bringing myself back to things that are so natural and not a part of our busy consumer lifestyle. Just trying to do things that make me feel happy.

WHAT ARE YOUR POST-TOKYO PLANS?

Ellie: Right now, I’m just really happy that the Olympics are going ahead. I love gymnastics and I want to continue as long as I feel like my body can handle it, my mind feels good, and I have goals that I feel I can achieve. If I feel like I can still help Canada and help younger girls have opportunities to experience some of the things I have, then I want to do that.

I’m very happy that I’ve been a part of opening up this gymnastics world in Canada and helping break some barriers down because I think we have a lot of bright young generations and a bright future for a lot of Canadian gymnasts.

Obviously, after the Olympics, I’m going to take a little bit of a break mentally and physically. It all depends on how the Olympics go as well, but my main thing is to focus on Tokyo. That’s the first step and then we look at the next chapter after that.

I’ll definitely come home, take a bit of a rest. Enjoy it with the family – and eat some pizza.

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