Ernestine “Ernie” Jean Russell, gymnast, coach (born 10 June 1938 in Windsor, ON). Ernestine Russell was Canada’s best female gymnast of the 1950s. She was the first woman to represent Canada in gymnastics at the Olympic Summer Games, at Melbourne in 1956. She was also the first Canadian gymnast ever to medal in an international competition, at the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago, where she won four gold medals and two silver. She won 46 gold medals at the Canadian Gymnastics Championships between 1954 and 1960. She also had a successful career coaching women’s gymnastics at the NCAA level and with Team USA. She has been inducted into the Canadian Amateur Athletic Hall of Fame and the US Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
Ernestine Russell competing in the parallel bars event at the AAU Championships, New York, 4 June 1954.
Ernestine Russell grew up in Windsor, Ontario. Her mother, Rene, taught dance at the British Royal Academy. Ernestine started to learn ballet and dance from her mother at age four. As a child, Russell was taught acrobatic tricks, cartwheels and handstands by her father, Donald, a foreman at the Windsor Ford plant, who was from Edinburgh, Scotland.
After Ernestine grew frustrated with ballet, her neighbour Bernie Newman, who had formed the Vocational Boys Gymnastics Team at the Windsor Gymnastics Club, allowed Ernestine to try the trampoline. “I asked Bernie if I could jump on the trampoline,” Russell told Sports Illustrated in 1960. “He said I could, so I took off my shoes and got on it. They darn near couldn’t get me off after that.” Russell also thoroughly enjoyed the practices that came along with gymnastics. She started competing at age 13.
Success at the Amateur Athletic Union Championships
At the 1953 Amateur Athletic Union Championships (the United States gymnastics championships) in Chicago, Russell won a silver medal in the women’s balance beam. As a result, she was named the 1953 Amateur Athletic Union of Canada most outstanding female athlete. She won the award a second straight year after winning gold in the women’s floor exercise, silver in the women’s all-around, and bronze in the women’s uneven bars at the 1954 AAU Championships in New York.
In 1955, Russell dominated the AAU Championships by winning five gold medals: in the all-around, vault, floor exercise, balance beam and uneven parallel bars. She won the all-around and vault again in 1958 and 1959, in addition to the balance beam in 1958.
Canadian Gymnastics Championships
In 1954, at the age of 16, Russell competed in her first Canadian Gymnastics Championships at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She won six gold medals, one silver medal and one bronze medal.
Over the next six years, Russell would win 40 additional gold medals at the Canadian Gymnastics Championships. She also won seven consecutive national titles on the vault from 1954 to 1960, along with six consecutive national championships in the individual all-around and the floor exercise from 1954 to 1959.
Due to her success at the Canadian Gymnastics Championships, Russell became the first to win three consecutive Velma Springstead Trophies from 1955 to 1957. The award, created by the Women’s Amateur Athletic Federation of Canada, was presented to the top Canadian female athlete.
Ernestine Russell at the 1956 Ontario Gymnastics Championship.
At the 1956 Olympic Summer Games in Melbourne, Russell became the first Canadian female Olympic gymnast. She also represented Canada at the 1960 Olympic Summer Games in Rome. Her best result was a 20th place finish in the women’s floor exercise at the 1956 Games.
1959 Pan American Games
Russell’s finest international success in women’s gymnastics came at the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago. She won six medals, including four gold medals (all-around, vault, balance beam and uneven bars). She also won silver medals in the floor exercise and team competition. Russell became the first Canadian gymnast ever to medal in an international competition.
After graduating from Kennedy High School in Windsor in 1956, Russell became the first woman to receive an athletic scholarship at Michigan State University. This also made her the first female gymnast to receive a full scholarship at an American university. She earned a degree in physical education and dance in 1960.
Russell went on to teach high school and cheerleading for five years. She then developed and coached the women’s gymnastics team at Michigan State University from 1965 to 1967. From 1970 to 1972, and again from 1974 to 1979, she coached at Clarion State University in Pennsylvania. Her athletes had a record of 58 wins and zero losses in dual meet competitions. Her teams won back-to-back Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women Division I National Championships in 1976 and 1977.
From 1979 to 1992, Russell was the head gymnastics coach at the University of Florida. She posted a dual meet record of 185 wins and 48 losses. In 1982, she helped the Gators win the final AIAW Gymnastics Championship. When the National Collegiate Athletic Association began sanctioning women’s events starting in 1982, Russell helped the Gators qualify for 11 straight national championships through to 1992. In 1989 and 1992, Russell was also the Southeastern Conference Women’s Gymnastics Coach of the Year.
At the international level, Russell spent many years coaching Team USA. She was initially the assistant coach for USA Women’s Gymnastics at the 1976 Olympic Summer Games in Montreal. She later served as the American head coach at the 1977 and 1985 World University Games and the 1978 World Gymnastics Championships in Strasbourg, France. She was named the head coach of the United States women’s Olympic team at the 1980 Olympic Summer Games in Moscow; however, the United States boycotted the Olympic Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Russell was inducted into the Canadian Amateur Athletic Hall of Fame in 1960, the Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame in 1981 and the United States Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1986.
Russell was married twice, first to John Carter, a baseball player at Michigan State University, and then to Jim Weaver, a football coach at the University of Florida. She has a daughter, Kelly Anne, and a grandson, Michael.