The Greeks, who had the right word for everything, had no trouble at all in finding a name for those places where competitors in public games were trained. Since all athletes practiced and competed entirely unclothed in those heroic days, the Greeks called their training quarters gymnasiums, taken from a word which meant, simply, naked. Perhaps this is one reason why over the centuries gymnastics has been a sport in which the human body is just as much admired for the way it looks as for the way it performs. It also explains why the pert and pocket-sized Aphrodite on the opposite page is considered in gymnastic circles to be one of the finest women athletes in the world.
Her name is Ernestine Jean Russell; she is 22 years old, exactly five feet tall, and her 110 pounds are becomingly distributed over a marvelously supple body—dimensions 35-24-34. The record proves that she is the best woman gymnast in North America, and it may well be that she is the prettiest woman athlete in competition anywhere.
A Canadian by birth but an American bride for the last seven months, Ernie Russell is a senior in physical education at Michigan State University. Last week between summer classes she was spending five to six hours a day in MSU's cavernous and deserted field house gym, perfecting her routines for the Canadian Olympic tryouts, which take place soon. Actually, Ernie's ticket to Rome was as good as bought. There are few gymnastics prizes she has missed once she set out after them. In the nine years since she entered competition as an 85-pound high school freshman, she has nipped, balanced and tumbled her way to 106 regional, state and national championships. She has won the Canadian women's championship six times in a row. She won the U.S. title three times and was an odds-on favorite to win it again this year before she stepped out of the competition because it was also a try-out for the Olympics.
A three-year record
Canada—at least, all of Canada that reads the newspapers—and Ernie have had a love affair for years now. She was chosen Canadian amateur woman athlete of the year three years in a row, a record equaled only by Figure Skater Barbara Ann Scott. Ernie's picture appears in Canadian newspapers as regularly as a movie starlet's.
It was largely because of Ernie's spectacular routines that Canada decided to send a gymnastics team to Melbourne at all. It had not taken part in Olympic gymnastics since 1912. In fact, Ernie has sparked a revived interest in gymnastics all over the country. Some people contend that it was because of the publicity he got while directing her career that Ernie's old coach, Bernard Newman, a high school teacher, was elected to the Windsor council and, eventually, to the legislature.
In 1958, when Ernie was the only woman among 88 gymnasts invited to Moscow to participate in Russia's World Gymnastics Championships, there was an angry spate of headlines in Canadian newspapers over reports that she had been bundled out of Moscow as soon as the contest was over, without even being given a tourist's privilege of looking around. The headlines grew blacker daily, and there was even talk of an official protest being lodged, when Ernie arrived home, exhausted and somewhat underweight, and put the story straight. She had not been booted out of Moscow; in fact, she had been treated warmly and hospitably by both her Russian competitors and Russian audiences. The mix-up apparently occurred because her coach, Bernie Newman, had complained about Russian food and about the fact that Russian officials would not let him stop off in the Ukraine on his way out of the country.
Ernie likes the Russians as competitors, but more than anything else she is grateful to them for showing her a gymnastics style she never knew existed until she saw them make a sweep at Melbourne. "They are far superior to any gymnasts in the Western countries," she says. "Our big trouble is that our gymnastics routines have always been based on men's routines. The Russians have an entirely new technique, and it's breathtaking and beautiful. Instead of taking a position and holding it, they are in constant motion all the time. They take one position and slide into another and another. It's closer to ballet than anything I can think of. Their extensions—the movements of arms and legs—are straight out of ballet. Where girls in the West raise their legs only up to here...they go way up to there. Until we reached Melbourne we weren't even aware that they did their routines to music. It makes all the difference in the world. The Russians try for grace, not just acrobatics. And don't let anyone tell you Russian women are chunky and muscular. Why, most of their gymnasts look like ballerinas, tall and slim and graceful."
Since Melbourne and again since Moscow, Ernie has altered her style and routines, but she does not think she will ever catch up to the Russians. After she graduates from MSU this year, however, she plans to teach physical education at Everett High School in Lansing, and she is grimly determined to have the best girls' gymnastics team in the U.S. "Boy oh boy! The things I've got to teach," she says. "I may not ever be able to catch up, but at least I have something to pass on. Why, nearly everywhere you look gymnastics is being taught incorrectly. I'm always seeing little girls with more nerve than a sore tooth doing something like, say, a back flip with a full twist. They think because it's difficult they'll impress judges. That's because they haven't seen the Russians and don't know any better."
Russian routines are better