One Athlete's Gruelling Day

KYLIE STONE doesn't look like a giant. But in GYMNASTICS, that's what the five-foot-three, 125-lb. Calgary native is shaping up to be. At last year's world championships in Anaheim, Calif., Kylie placed 14th all around, the highest-ever ranking by a female Canadian gymnast.

One Athlete's Gruelling Day

KYLIE STONE doesn't look like a giant. But in GYMNASTICS, that's what the five-foot-three, 125-lb. Calgary native is shaping up to be. At last year's world championships in Anaheim, Calif., Kylie placed 14th all around, the highest-ever ranking by a female Canadian gymnast. Now, Kylie, who turns 17 on May 16, is hoping to represent Canada this August at the Summer Games in Athens (the team will be named after trials in July). Performing at that level requires single-minded dedication, especially in a sport in which athletes reach their peak during their teens and one shot at Olympic glory is often all they get. For years, Kylie has juggled school while maintaining a gruelling training regimen, five hours a day, six days a week - sacrificing many of the normal rhythms of adolescence.

At the same time, Kylie has been luckier than most. For the past two years, she's attended the Calgary-based National Sport School. Run jointly by the Calgary Olympic Development Association and the Calgary Board of Education, the year-round school gives 110 elite athletes from more than a dozen sports an opportunity to finish high school while meeting their training and competition commitments. Class sizes are small, homework deadlines are negotiable and tutorial and on-line services allow Kylie to keep up when she's on the road by e-mailing teachers and using Web-based learning materials.

While that flexibility helps, the challenges facing high-performance athletes remain daunting. Consider this day-in-the-life of someone on the cusp of Olympic stardom.

9 A.M. I join Kylie and her father, Jeff Stone, for breakfast at their home in northwest Calgary. Kylie's still wiping sleep from her eyes. Jeff cooks scrambled eggs, which she washes down with strawberry-kiwi juice. Her diet is hardly the stuff of teenage dreams. "You have to avoid the junk food," says Jeff. "She gets very little pop - maybe once a week. And the odd chocolate bar as a treat, though never a full-sized one." Kylie is allowed one indulgence: ketchup on her scrambled eggs.

Jeff is a single dad (Kylie's his only child) whose work as a realtor gives him the flexibility to drive his daughter to and from school and the gym. As she eats her eggs, he explains how he enrolled her at age 5 in a recreational gymnastics program after watching her tumbling around the floor at home. A natural, Kylie was soon placed in a pre-competitive program and began competing at age 9 (the earliest age possible in Alberta).

After winning the junior nationals in Saint John in 2001, Kylie set her sights on the OLYMPICS. Which meant, of course, stepping up her training another notch. Does she ever feel like she's giving up too much for her sport? "Not really," she says. "I don't see friends that often. But we have Sundays off and I try to get together with them then."

10:30 A.M. Jeff drops Kylie off at Ernest Manning High School, where the National Sport School occupies one wing. Her first class is on career and life management, something the Grade 11 student is thinking a lot about these days. American universities are lining up to offer her athletic scholarships; she is leaning toward UCLA or University of Utah. She's not sure yet what she wants to study - maybe psychology. Once at university, she will have less opportunity to compete internationally, another reason Athens is such a singular opportunity for her. "It's hard to go on scholarship and then get back into Olympic mode," says Kylie. After all, she notes, training at the university level consists of "only" 22 hours a week.

11:30 A.M. Between classes, Kylie has a brief session with sports psychologist Clare Fewster. These talks are becoming more frequent as the Olympics approach. They discuss ways Kylie can maintain her confidence between performances - in the overall event, she competes in four events: vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor. This is particularly crucial if things aren't going well. Fewster tells her to remember great performances of the past, the support she has from coaches, friends and family - anything to stay positive. Kylie admits she gets down on herself when she doesn't perform as well as she'd like. "But I'm getting better," she says. "I'm learning to focus on the next event rather than reliving the last one."

Fewster acknowledges there's really no way to prepare for the pressure. To help manage the stress, she urges athletes to imagine all possible outcomes. "We often start with the worst that could happen," says Fewster. "An injury? How would you feel about that? Or what about if everything goes perfectly? In Kylie's case, that could be a gold medal; it's not out of the question. It's important to have that golden carrot out there, but it can't be the sole focus."

12 P.M. Over the next two hours, Kylie attends physics and French classes. National Sport School principal Rick Pressé says that, even among her peers, Kylie faces unusual pressures. The school attracts mainly winter athletes (short track speed skater Alanna Kraus and freestyle skier Deidra Dionne, both Olympic bronze medalists, are among its alumni), and most don't compete internationally until their 20s. "It's different for Kylie," says Pressé. "Her time is now."

2 P.M. Jeff takes Kylie home for some downtime. She watches Trading Spaces on TV.

3:30 P.M. Kylie arrives at the Stampede City Gymnastics Club. Since she was 5, she's been coached by Romanian-born, husband-and-wife Horia and Stephania Iliesu. "From the beginning," says Horia, "she was physically strong, willing to try anything and always, always, working hard. That's the key. A hard worker will survive - and succeed."

Over the next five hours, Kylie runs through her daily drill. Warm-up and conditioning followed by partial and full routines in all four gymnastic events. She's surrounded by up to two dozen girls, some as young as 6, all going through their own paces but keeping a watchful eye on the star in their midst. "Kylie's so good with the young ones," says Stephania. "I ask them, 'How far do you want to go?' And they reply, 'As far as Kylie!'"

Kylie's workout is strenuous and invigorating. She smiles more often now than she has for the rest of the day. Her talent is dazzling, whether it's a flurry of tumbles and flips on the mat or twists and somersaults on the bars. But toward the end, as she repeats again and again a kind of high-wire ballet on the beam, Kylie is upset with herself. Stephania explains that one of Kylie's ankles, wrapped in a bandage, is sore, so she's not landing as she'd like. "This is how she is," says Stephania. "I've seen her so frustrated, there will be tears in her eyes. But she always keeps trying."

9 P.M. Kylie arrives home for dinner - a large mixed green salad with shaved cheese on top, and another strawberry-kiwi juice. Ahead is some homework and a bit of TV or computer chatting with friends. At 11 p.m., it's lights out, in the hopes of nine solid hours of sleep. Tomorrow, it all begins again.

Maclean's May 3, 2004