Rhythmic Gymnast: Alexandra Orlando

Alexandra Orlando has heard all the jokes. The snide remarks about ribbon twirling and dancing her way to a medal. The unsolicited opinions - mostly proffered by people who have never seen a competition in their lives - that rhythmic GYMNASTICS "isn't a real sport.

Rhythmic Gymnast: Alexandra Orlando

Alexandra Orlando has heard all the jokes. The snide remarks about ribbon twirling and dancing her way to a medal. The unsolicited opinions - mostly proffered by people who have never seen a competition in their lives - that rhythmic GYMNASTICS "isn't a real sport." She can't pretend that they don't hurt, but after 16 years toiling in the athletic equivalent of the witness protection program, she's developed a thick skin. What Orlando will never get used to, however, is the Canadian public's failure to comprehend what it takes to be among the best in the world, even in a sport they don't appreciate. "People just don't know how difficult it is, how hard I've had to work just to come eighth," says the 21-year-old, who will be heading to her first OLYMPICS this summer in Beijing. "I couldn't stop smiling the first time I cracked the top 20 at a World Cup event. And I remember going to school and a boy patting me on the back and saying 'Don't worry, you'll do better next time.' "

In a sport that has garnered Canada a grand total of one Olympic medal since its 1984 debut - Lori FUNG's gold that same year in Los Angeles - Orlando is the national team. Literally. A rhythmic gymnast since the age of 4, she has no domestic peers, having swept all four events at the national championship, and the overall title, for each of the past six years. (Rhythmic's five disciplines are ball, hoops, clubs, ribbon and rope. Each year, one event is rotated out of competition - there will be no ball routine in Beijing.) She won six golds at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, a feat only three other athletes - all swimmers - have ever duplicated. And she looked set to take home all five available Pan Am golds last July in Rio, but had to settle for three after her ribbon detached from its swivel mid-performance, earning her a zero, and knocking her out of the overall race. But in a sport long dominated by eastern Europeans, such results were no predictor of similar success on the wider world stage.

Four years ago, Orlando missed out on a chance to compete in Athens by a 10th of a point, finishing 21st in the world at the Olympic qualifiers. A mistake, she says, born from listening to an inner voice that told her to play it safe. "Now I never hold back in competition. I've learned that regret is the worst thing." This past fall in Patras, Greece, Orlando put that lesson into practice, clinching a ticket to China - Canada's first Olympic berth since 2000 - with a ninth-place overall finish, the first top 10 by a North or South American rhythmic gymnast since 1984.

Summer athletes in Canada are used to being ignored - at least outside of Olympic years. But even by those standards, Orlando has to feel like the invisible woman. Rhythmic's non-existent profile on this side of the Atlantic ranks it as an afterthought both in terms of money and support. Six months ago, her coach, Mimi Masleva, tired of trying to make ends meet in Toronto (the sport doesn't qualify for enough funding to hire a national coach), took a full-time position in the south of Spain. Since then, Orlando has trained under the watchful eyes of surrogates, starting at 6 a.m., six days a week at a community college in the north end of the city. (Masleva constantly demands videotapes of the sessions, but rarely receives them. "I hate showing her my mistakes. I'm a huge perfectionist," says her charge.) It's an unusual arrangement that has only added to the athlete's financial burden. Now, along with the foreign competitions, she must spend weeks at a time training in Europe, at a cost of $300 a day, plus room and board. An average season costs close to $50,000 - a bill that dwarfs the standard $1,500 a month in federal athlete funding Orlando receives, the $5,000 a year Ontario kicks in, and even that nice $5,000 annual bursary from the Hudson's Bay Co. And having to pay so dearly for the privilege of representing her country has made the dips in her career seem even lower. "It's hard for me to train and compete and feel that I don't have Canada's support," she says. "For so many years I've been out there alone. The weight is all on my shoulders."

To make things easier in the run-up to the Games, she has suspended her commerce studies at the University of Toronto and moved back to her parents' house. The quest for Olympic gold is currently being financed on an assortment of credit cards. But to make it work, Orlando's entire family long ago had to buy into the program. With her dad, Paul, a systems analyst, mostly working out of town, her mother, Marisa, took on the full-time job of gymnastics mom, accompanying her daughter to the four-hour-a-day practices, and eventually becoming president of her club. The last family vacation Orlando can remember was a car trip to South Carolina when she was 10. And the decor of her parents home has always been minimalist. "My dad has wanted a wall unit for the longest time to put the TV in, but that hasn't happened," she says.

For a while this spring it seemed like those many sacrifices were going to culminate in a dream for Alexandra, but cruel disappointment for her parents and older sister, Victoria. Like the families of many athletes, in Canada and abroad, the Orlandos were unable to secure event tickets for Beijing. (Gymnastics, like swimming, is being held in a small venue and is extremely popular in China.) However, a trainer at the health club where Alex works out leaned on a cousin who works for McDonald's Canada, and the corporation, a global sponsor of the Olympics, found three extra tickets in its U.K. office. Gymnastics Canada found two more for her aunt and uncle. Now the airfares and hotel rooms won't go to waste. And neither will plans for a decade-delayed family vacation after the closing ceremonies.

Unfortunately, what they will witness on the mat at the Beijing University of Technology Gymnasium this August is all but written in stone. Despite her recent strides, Orlando frankly admits that she can draw up a list of the six or seven women - Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians - who will probably finish in front of her. Like the old figure skating system, rhythmic gymnastic judges are loath to overturn the established order. "It's part of our sport. You have to be a strong enough person to keep motivating yourself," she says. "For me, Beijing is not about a medal, it's about going in and doing an absolutely flawless routine. I'm doing it for me, my family, and Canada." Sixteen years of early mornings and financial hardships just for the chance to compete in the Olympic Games. The question will be whether the people back home know enough to be proud.

Alexandra Orlando: Olympic Nuggets

Why rhythmic gymnastics? It's just the most unique thing that I have ever seen or done in my life. A combination of gymnastics, acrobatics and dance.

Do you remember your first competition? I was seven, and it was in Toronto at my club, Ritmika. I came first.

Favourite sport beside your own? Soccer. I love to watch all sports, but I love to play soccer. Although I'm not technically allowed to.

Pre-competition ritual or lucky charm? Someone gave me one of the first Beijing mascots. It's a little tiny key chain and I keep it on my bag. I don't leave home without it.

What music do you listen to in training? It's usually something with a really good beat that will pump you up. Kanye West.

Special diet? Unfortunately yes. I can't eat anything that I like.

Guilty pleasure? Chocolate, but I try to stay away from it. I have one cheat day a week, where I allow myself carbs. Let's hope my coach doesn't see this or she'll kill me.

Worst moment in competition? My ribbon breaking at the Pan Ams last summer.

Favourite inspirational quote? It's from Muhammad Ali. "Champions aren't made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them - a desire, a dream, a vision." My dad gave it to me years ago. It's on the front of my journal.

What's the secret to surviving on Canada's amateur sport funding? Move in with your parents and totally, totally mooch off them.

Post-competition plans? I definitely want to finish my undergrad degree in political science and economics. And I'm definitely going to take up another sport competitively. I want to stay involved in the Canadian sporting committee. A dream of mine is helping to open a national sports centre in Toronto.

Maclean's July 28, 2008