In Conversation with Kyle Shewfelt

On 15 December 2015, Kyle Shewfelt spoke to Jeremy Freeborn for The Canadian Encyclopedia at Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in Calgary.
On 15 December 2015, Kyle Shewfelt spoke to Jeremy Freeborn for The Canadian Encyclopedia at Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in Calgary.

At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, gymnast Kyle Shewfelt of Calgary, Alberta, made Canadian sports history. Shewfelt became the first Canadian artistic gymnast ever to win a gold medal at an Olympic Games when he placed first in the men’s floor competition. It was the defining moment of a brilliant gymnastics career that saw Shewfelt win three gold medals at the Commonwealth Games and three bronze medals at the World Gymnastics Championships. On 15 December 2015, Kyle Shewfelt spoke to Jeremy Freeborn for The Canadian Encyclopedia at Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in Calgary.

JF: What was it about the sport of gymnastics that piqued your interest?

KS: As a young child, I actually did a lot of different sports. I had swimming lessons, and played baseball and hockey. I suppose I always enjoyed them, but they didn’t motivate me. I wasn’t in love with them. ... I started to cartwheel around the house and I started to do handstands against the wall. The first day I went into the gym [at age six], it was like a magical light shined down, and it felt like I found my place. For me it was about the freedom to explore the human movement potential, and also I loved the speed and the flips.

JF: Your father played for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League. Tell me about the day you told your parents you wanted to pursue gymnastics over hockey.

KS: I remember that day. I had to make a choice. I was seven years old and I was a good hockey player. I was a very good skater. I could do laps around the arena, but I couldn’t always score goals. I was doing full rolls and trying cartwheels sometimes on the ice, and I think it was pretty clear to my parents what my favourite sport was. I remember it came to the point where hockey and gymnastics started to conflict. I would have to leave hockey to go to gymnastics or I would have to leave gymnastics to go to hockey practice. My mom said I had to make a choice, and I think it took me 3.2 seconds to say, ‘gymnastics.’

I don’t know what my parents’ reactions were. I’m sure my dad was a little bit disappointed. I think being a hockey player, I’m sure he wanted his boys to play hockey [Kyle’s brother, Scott, is two years older]. But my parents were always so incredibly supportive and never questioned the dream. They were always fully supportive of it. They worked all of the bingos and casinos [to help fundraise], and paid the bills.

I think as a parent it is really cool to see your child find their passion. There are so many children that take such a long time to find it. I found gymnastics at a young age and I feel very fortunate.

JF: At what point in your life did you decide to pursue gymnastics at a high level?

KS: I was about nine years old. I started when I was six years old, and by the time I was nine years old, I knew that I had something special. I could hear the buzz from the people around me. People were saying, ‘oh, you are going to go the Olympics one day,’ or ‘You learn skills easily. You have great air sense, real quick speed and power.’ At nine years old, I could do a full twisting double back. I think as a child when you stand out in something and you know you have a bit of a gift, then that really makes you think that you could go to the highest level.

There was also a woman at my gym [Altadore Gymnastics Club in southeast Calgary]— Jennifer Wood, who qualified for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. I got to train by her side-by-side every day. At that point, it occurred to me that I could be an Olympian too. Someone from my club, from my city, was able to get there. I then asked, ‘why can’t I?’ So that was a big moment for me around nine years old, when I saw Jennifer in that process, trying to qualify for the Olympics. That is when the dream really became alive. I just didn’t want to be an Olympian — I wanted to be an Olympic champion. I watched gymnastics on television all of the time. I was obsessed with it. I wanted to be like the Russians and the Chinese.

JF: What impressed you the most about the Russian gymnasts?

KS: I loved how elegant the Russian gymnasts were. They combined artistry and athleticism. I was very drawn to how they performed with such confidence and such style. To me gymnastics is that perfect combination of athleticism and artistry. There is a way you can show a bit of personality and there is a way you can distinguish yourself amongst your competitors by doing something a little subtle and a little different. The Russians did that the best. The way they stepped to the corner of the floor, the way they pointed their toe, the way they held their chin and the way their eyes would look, was different from the rest of the world’s gymnasts. Those are little details, but I was drawn to them and I wanted to be like them.

JF: What impressed you the most about Jennifer Wood?

KS: Jennifer broke ground. She was the first Alberta woman to ever qualify in gymnastics at an Olympic Games and I think she really was a leader and opened a lot of our eyes as young people to think that maybe we could do that too. Jennifer was always so congenial. She was so open and worked hard. She pursued her goals. I love her story: Wood failed to qualify for the Canadian team at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, but she continued to train because she wanted to be an Olympian. That was her dream. For me as a young kid, to see someone come so close and still pursue something and get that dream, and for that dream to become a reality, that was a really strong lesson.

JF: You attended the National Sports School in Calgary. What are some of the benefits that specialized sports schools offer high performance athletes?

KS: I attended the National Sports School starting in grade 10. It allowed me freedom and flexibility. Academics were absolutely important, but …. I needed to pursue the sport at that time. There was no way to delay it. World Cups were coming. The chance to qualify for an Olympic Games was on its way. I needed to focus as much of my energy into training as I possibly could. The school was accommodating. It allowed me to be both a student and an athlete, and to be able to excel at both.

JF: I understand you were bullied as a child. Was your involvement in gymnastics one of the reasons for the bullying?

KS: For sure. I think anytime you do something that is against the mould, something that is a little bit different and something that isn’t as popular among the public, then you are going to get bullied for it. As a kid, being a boy involved in gymnastics, I got called every name in the book … names I choose not to repeat. That hurt, but I knew I was being true to myself. I was pursuing the sport that spoke to me. It was easy to brush it off, but in another way it is never fun to deal with that. Now as an adult, I see kids who are bullied for doing the sport of gymnastics. I tell them to be true to themselves. It doesn’t matter what people think and no matter what you choose, there are going to be people who do not agree with your choice. I tell them to do the sport that they want to do, and be the best at it that they can be. When you get great at a sport, the bullying becomes a lot less. All of a sudden, you are traveling around the world, having great opportunities and achieving success. Then it becomes a non-issue.

JF: What can you tell me about the “I’ve Been Bullied” campaign that you and Kaillie Humphries are a part of?

KS: The “I’ve Been Bullied” campaign was started by Catherine Oshanek in 2011. The program is about connecting people to stories. I think it is important for young people to see that their mentors were bullied too, and that they got through it and they are OK. I really wanted to be a part of this program and be a strong voice for young boys especially, who are doing something that is unconventional —such as boys that are artists, dancers and gymnasts. We are all individuals. We are all unique. As long as you are passionate, dedicated and hard working, then that is all that matters. I want to send that message. You’ve got to do what you want to do and who cares what other people want.

JF: Do you feel the stigma against male gymnasts in North America is starting to decrease?

KS: I think there are some uneducated people in the world who decide that because you do something that is artistic, it means that you are not a man. The North American sports scene is weird. We promote fighting and cheer people on when they’re fighting on ice, but don’t have an appreciation for someone who can move the body in the lightest, most elegant way possible.

I think in North America we appreciate violence a little bit more, especially combat sports. However in Europe, every parent wants their child to be in gymnastics. In Japan, every parent wants their kid to be the next Kohei Uchimura [the men’s all-around gymnastics champion from the 2012 Olympic Games in London]. It is important to get rid of the stigma. Boys that do gymnastics are the most well-rounded athletes. The reality is that not a lot of gymnasts are ever going to make the highest level — only a very small percentage…. But gymnastics creates the best foundation of strength, flexibility, co-ordination and agility. Doing gymnastics makes you a better athlete overall. That’s why I am trying to promote the sport and argue that gymnastics is the base for all sports. I believe everyone that plays hockey should cross train with gymnastics. It is going to make them a better on-ice player.

JF: Kelly Manjak was your coach from age six until the 2004 Olympic Games. It is very unusual for a coach to be with an athlete for so long. In your opinion, how fortunate were you to have so much stability when it came to your coach?

KS: That stability was the rock that allowed me to be mentally, physically, and emotionally ready on that day in Athens. Kelly and I grew together as both coach and athlete. He is from Cranbrook, British Columbia. He is the more interesting story, to me. Kelly was a gymnast, but was too tall to compete at the elite level. But he loved it so much, he became a coach. Kelly was so passionate and dedicated. He was just as dedicated as I was. He showed up every single day to help me train. He pushed me while I was being a little jerk as a teenager and helped me create plans and goals. We butted heads sometimes. We have been through it all. I saw him more than I saw my parents. He was my rock. At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, his presence was so calming and so comfortable. He knew me so well, that he could tell what was going on without even having to ask.

JF: What can you tell me about the “Shewfelt vault”?

KS: It is funny. Wikipedia says I did the vault first at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. That wasn’t the first time. I did the vault for the first time at the 1999 Canadian National Gymnastics Championships in Burnaby, BC, and then again at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

The Shewfelt vault was just adding an extra half twist to a vault that everyone in the world was already doing. It is pretty cool to be an innovator. It was such a good feeling. Now it is in the Code of Points (International Gymnastics Federation scoring system rulebook) and there is a picture of it. I printed it off and it is in a little frame in my office.

In 1999, I could do the double twist really easily. I had done the two and a half twist in training. A really cool rule was created where you could do one vault and secure your score. Then you could do a harder vault and if it got a better score, you could take that score. If not, your first score would count because the organizers wanted to encourage bigger and more difficult vaults. I nailed my first vault. Then I went for it. It was on the old school, skinny vault horse. Now the vault horse is thicker. I landed it. I still have it on video — everyone went wild.

JF: How did it feel to win two gold medals in gymnastics at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester?

KS: It is funny. The Commonwealth Games sometimes get overlooked at times. It was such a monumental moment for me. I had already been to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. However, this was one of my first big team competitions because I was an individual competing at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney [Shewfelt and Sasha Jeltkov of Montréal were the only Canadian male gymnasts at the Games as Canada did not qualify for the team competition]. In 2002, I got to go Manchester with more of my teammates.

[Eight years earlier,] in 1994, my mom, grandma, aunt and I went to Victoria for the Commonwealth Games. I watched the athletes. I was the kid with the sign with all the gymnasts’ names on it and I went to everything. I would show up an hour early so I could be at the venue and experience it and would stay an hour after so I could see the athletes and get them to sign my things. The whole gymnastics competition at the 1994 Commonwealth Games was better to me than a rock concert.

It was very surreal being in Manchester in 2002. I felt like I was coming into my own and developing a great international reputation. I was starting to become very consistent. Then I had that moment, where I said to myself, ‘Holy ----.’ I was watching a kid in the crowd that was watching me. It was déjà vu. It was a big leap forward in my career.

JF: What is your fondest memory from your gold medal–winning floor routine at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens?

KS: I can replay it in my mind like it was yesterday. There are a few moments that really stick out. The first moment is right before my routine. I look at that moment and never in my life will I ever experience something like that again. I was so prepared. It was like you were stepping off the ledge and ready to jump into the abyss. You don’t know what’s going to happen. I was so zoned in and was so ready. I kind of just let go. I’ve talked to so many athletes who competed at a high level. I talked to swimmer Mark Tewksbury, rower Marnie McBean and speed skater Catriona Le May Doan. All three had that same out of body experience where you kind of let go and just let it happen. You stop thinking. You stop trying and you just let go. You can only do that when you are fully prepared. That moment was very special to me.

I remember halfway through my floor routine, I said to myself, ‘I am halfway through and I am perfect.’ I remember saying that. It was so cool. I was so aware.

Then I remember right after I stuck [executed] my dismount, something came out of me or erupted out of me. It was a yell or a roar. It was a huge release of emotions. It felt so amazing.

But the moment that sticks out the most to me is when I ran off the floor and gave Kelly a big hug. We were so elated. That moment to me really stands out. We didn’t know if we had won or not. The score had not come up. But the feeling of success, self-satisfaction, knowing I had done my best routine and Kelly knew as a coach that I had nailed the performance. That feeling was so great, I didn’t care about the score. I was kind of afraid to see the score come up because I did not want that feeling to go away. Then the score came up and put us into first place, and that was a great feeling as well. But it was that moment of not knowing the end result, but knowing the performance went exactly as we planned it, that was my fondest memory.

JF: Many believe you should have won a second Olympic medal in the vault at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and that the judges made a significant judging error in giving Marian Dragulescu of Romania a higher score and the bronze medal. Do you believe there was a judging error?

KS: Yes, there was. Six months after the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, four judges were penalized and sanctioned for a year [for their judging of the vault final]. The reality is that on that day, I was the third best athlete. I am not the third best vaulter in the world. I never was. On that day, there are a lot of people who fell and made mistakes, including Marian. Marian is one of my dearest friends. He is such a great athlete and person. But on that day, I think his mistakes should have been penalized. His score was impossible [given that Dragulescu fell]. I realize this now. As an athlete in the moment, I was focused on my routine and my performance. The other stuff I had no control over and I tried not to worry about it. I didn’t put up a strong enough fight. I don’t have any regrets in my life, but I wish I was more aware of the scores at the time. I won an historic gold medal the day before. I had been away for two months. I wanted to see my family. I was exhausted.

I didn’t want to focus on the negative. I am a positive person. I wanted to focus on the victory and I wanted to leave those Olympic Games feeling really, really great.

JF: What can you tell me about your participation with Right to Play?

KS: Representatives from the Right to Play organization spoke to me in 2004 after my success at the Olympic Games in Athens. I attended a fundraiser for Right to Play and I saw the power that sport can have on the international stage, how sport is about more than just the game and is about more than just the athleticism. It is about life lessons, skills, learning to respect yourself, and learning to respect those people around you. It is about learning to take care of yourself and taking care of those people around you. Sport has the power to teach really powerful lessons and not just teach the lessons, but have them stick.

Right to Play is an incredible organization that uses sport and play. It is not just sport. It’s play. People from these communities have been handed a pretty bad deck of cards. The organization is teaching them how to find a sense of hope again and how to find joy.

When a kid is on the trampoline, I always try to challenge them to frown. I tell them, ‘you can’t smile. You can’t smile while you are on the trampoline.’ However, they have to because it is just that natural reaction. When you are moving your body and you are interacting and engaging with others, it is a joyful experience and you get those feelings of good and it builds your leadership skills.

To make a long story short, Right to Play is an amazing organization in terms of promoting humanity and making the world better. That is why I am involved.

In 2011, I got the opportunity to travel to Liberia. I was able to see the program first hand.

Another really cool thing about Right to Play — it is not about trying to throw money at a problem. It is trying to build a foundation. Right to Play teaches leaders in the community how to be sport and play leaders, how to teach the games, how to be community educators. The goal of Right to Play is actually to leave the communities because they want the communities to be sustainable. The objective is to go in, give the tools and then leave so the people in the communities can try and figure things out.

JF: Tell us about your work as a television gymnastics analyst.

KS: This is something I always wanted to do. I feel so blessed, being given this opportunity. I always enjoyed doing television work and felt comfortable being in front of the camera. In 2008, after I was done competing, CBC Sports President Scott Moore asked me to come to his office. I agreed. He congratulated me on my Olympic performance and then asked if I would be interested in doing some commentary. I said, ‘yes, that would be awesome. When?’ He then replied, ‘tomorrow. We would love to have your perspective in the men’s competition here in Beijing.’ He opened a door for me that I always wanted. I absolutely jumped at the opportunity and thank Scott every time I see him. It’s great. I love it.

JF: How did it feel to be inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2010?

KS: That was a really special day. I think it was even more special for my parents. They worked so hard and they were so proud of me. It is nice to have your accomplishments recognized. I am mesmerized by Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame — I love seeing artifacts and love sport history.

JF: In 2013, you opened the Kyle Shewfelt Gymnastics Centre in Calgary. How pleased are you with the evolution of the Centre?

KS: I am very pleased. The idea is something I thought of following the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. I thought winning a gold medal was fun but wondered what I would do with it and how I could impact my community? I think that is what the real value is. Standing on the podium is great, but it is just a moment. I wanted to impact the next generation. After the 2012 Olympic Games in London, I struggled with my transition. After you retire, it is hard to figure out what comes next. I studied business with a focus on entrepreneurship at Mount Royal University. I also studied broadcasting. I have great interest in entrepreneurial pursuits. I love [the sense of] being responsible for my own success and my own [failure]. It keeps me motivated.

When I made a decision to open a gymnasium, I started building a business plan, did some networking and found some great team members.… We have been open for two years.… It feels really nice to share my passion for gymnastics in this way.

JF: What Canadian has inspired you the most and why?

KS: All Canadian Olympians inspire me. When I watch the Olympics, and I see a Canadian, I cry because they just make me so proud. I know the sacrifice and work they put in. I know how they feel representing our country. I am inspired by those who can boldly stand, put it all on the line, and take a risk, knowing it could go one way or the other. That is why I am inspired by Canadian Olympians.

This interview has been edited and condensed.