Ellie Black, the top Canadian female gymnast of all time, is your newest member of Team MuscleTech. Black will be heading to the Tokyo Summer Olympics, making it the third time that she’ll be representing Canada at the Olympic Games. At the 2016 Olympic Games, Black finished 5th in the individual all-around competition, which was the highest placement ever recorded by a Canadian gymnast.
The most decorated female Canadian gymnast ever, Black is a 2017 World Championships Silver AA Medalist and the first Canadian gymnast to win a world all-around medal. She is also the 2018 Commonwealth Games all-around champion, a two-time Pan American Games all-around champion, and a seven-time Canadian national all-around champion. In 2018, she was named one of the greatest 15 athletes in Nova Scotian history and was awarded the Order of Nova Scotia for her contributions as an ambassador for both gymnastics and the province. The proud Canadian and Nova Scotian is also an advocate for female empowerment.
Black took time out of her busy training schedule to talk about how she was able to recover from her almost career-ending injury at the 2019 World Championships, what she’s doing right now to train for the Olympic Games this summer, and what it would mean to her to become the first Canadian woman to win an Olympic medal in traditional gymnastics. The 25-year-old from Halifax, Nova Scotia, whose favorite motto is: Dream big, don’t let anyone else set your limits, also shared her advice for any female athletes and gymnasts who are looking to follow in her footsteps.
Q: Gymnastics is a sport that’s typically dominated by teenagers due to the intense physical demands and time commitments that are placed on elite gymnasts. Yet, you’re still competing at an elite level at 25-years-old. How have you been able to stay at the top of your game for so long?
A: “My gymnastics career, when I was younger, looked a lot different than some of the other high-performance athletes. I didn’t train as many hours. I was from a smaller club and a smaller province. I didn’t miss school. We didn’t have the option to do school online. I would just train after school in the evening from four to eight o’clock. So, I think a bit of that was just not overtraining, not wearing myself out too young, and kind of peaking at a later age. I think we’re seeing that now with more athletes. As you get older, you understand a lot more about the sport. You have a lot more experience to pull from and your body has developed. So, you understand your body better, you’re able to understand what you’re doing in training, and how to effectively train.
So, it’s a lot of quality over quantity. It’s about knowing what your body needs, knowing what you have to do, and being able to communicate and work with your coach in a great way. I’ve had really great coaches over the years who have managed to do that with me. I’ve had a great team of support. I wouldn’t be here today without the community and the support team that I’ve had. They’ve kept me together through all the injuries and everything that we’ve had to overcome.
I think it’s so incredible that at 25 I’m competing and going into my third Olympic Games, and I still feel like I’m achieving goals that I set for myself. I feel like I’m in great shape and I feel like I’m able to hit peak still. I think that’s just attributed to being smarter, being more knowledgeable, and really understanding how much strength, conditioning, injury prevention, and proper nutrition goes into it. You know, we’re looking at a long-term picture rather than one short-term quad.”
Q: Knowing that young competitors are the norm in your sport, what went through your mind after you injured yourself during your vault attempt at the 2019 World Championships? Did you ever have any doubts about your future in gymnastics after that injury?
A: “When I injured myself, I was mostly concerned with what the injury was and then how that was going to affect me being less than a year away in our preparations for Tokyo. I have a phenomenal team. I was able to come home, get my surgery, get the information we needed, and create a plan. And I think at that point, it was mostly focusing my mindset on what I needed to do to get back to being strong in order to make that Tokyo team. I focused on the things that were within my control and tried not to think about the other things outside of my control.
I really try not to dwell too much on the what-ifs because they can spiral and they’re not always helpful. It’s easy to say, hard to do. But I really do try and put those what-ifs out of my mind and really focus on the things that are within my control. I think it was really just trusting the process. I definitely got a little bit of extra rest this past year for my ankle, which was very nice. And this past year also gave a lot of younger athletes coming up the opportunity to compete in an Olympic Games that they wouldn’t have been eligible for last year. We have one girl on our team Ava Stewart. I’m ten years older than her and we’ll be competing together at the Olympics. So, that’s pretty crazy.”
Q: You tore your ATFL (anterior talofibular ligament) and the syndesmosis ligament, which holds the fibula and tibia together. This injury required you to undergo ankle surgery. What was the recovery process like for you both physically and mentally?
A: “I tore the ATFL and then the syndesmosis ligament that’s really deep down there and really hard to tear, and I did that. So, I got surgery when I came back home to Canada. It’s called a TightRope™. It kind of acts like that syndesmosis ligament that holds those bones together. And that’s anchored by a plate and a few screws in my ankle. So, my ankle is bionic now.
For me, that was one of the biggest surgeries that I’ve ever had and that metal is still in my ankle. So, that was new and different for me. It was my fourth surgery so I had at least a little bit of knowledge, preparation, and confidence going into that. I have a great team behind me and I felt very supported in that aspect.
But it was definitely really hard mentally because of the time crunch going into Tokyo and the severity of the injury. It was a pretty big injury, and not a long timeline to overcome from that. But we have been through many injuries together, we’ve been through surgeries, and we’ve been through tight time crunches before. So, I think it was really pulling from those previous experiences that I’ve had and working together as a team to figure out the best plan.
So, each day I thought, ‘What can I do that’s one percent going to help me get closer to that goal?’ Whether that is moving my ankle with one percent more mobility, or getting out of bed and standing on it. Just one little thing each day to focus on and not be too overwhelmed by the whole process. So, just taking it day by day was really important.
Physically, it was hard because I’m not the kind of person who likes to have time off and lay in bed for a week. I had to lay in bed for a week after surgery and that was very tough for me. But coming back into the gym and being back in my environment brought me good feelings, even though I wasn’t able to train. I think just being back in my environment was really important for that recovery and that process. And just taking it that one step at a time, knowing that you have to be confident in the steps that you’re taking to get back and believe that it’s going to work out. Having belief was really important to overcome those mental and physical barriers that were put there because of surgery. Obviously, I had my good days and my bad days, but in general it was just trusting that process.”
Q: Gymnastics requires balance, strength, flexibility, agility, coordination, and endurance. When it comes to the Olympic Games, reaching peak fitness at the right time is extremely important. So, can you take us through your training program as you’re preparing for the Tokyo Summer Olympics?
A: “Ideally, as an athlete, you want to peak at a certain time. Whether that happens in a great way or not, you never know. (Smiling) Sometimes in sport, injuries happen, little things happen and you have to readjust the plan. I think it’s important to be adaptable in that sense of when you’re trying to hit your peak.
For me, when I’m trying to work towards my peak, our training in the gym gets a little bit more specific. We start to really focus in on our competition routines and practicing those in high quality parts. So, making sure you’re working towards the execution – how clean you’re performing the skills, the consistency of the skills that you’re able to perform, and putting those together as a routine.
Then, keeping up your physical conditioning, but not overtiring yourself out. It’s important to pace yourself. At the strength and conditioning gym, it’s the same. We don’t do a lot of heavy, heavy lifting. We do more quick, powerful, and explosive things that are going to help me feel good and fast in the gym, and then maintaining that up until the week or a few weeks before the Olympic Games depending on our access.
It’s really important to prioritize your nutrition, your rest, your recovery, and your treatment. You need to kind of tune in to that since all of those factors play into leading up towards that peak. I would say from my experience, maybe sometimes it seems like there’s an ideal peak time, but for me there’s always something that has to be overcome. There’s always something that comes up that we have to manage or handle, whether that’s an injury, a mental block, or anything. It never goes perfectly, there’s always going to be something. And that kind of keeps you on your toes, and it keeps you hyper-focused on what you have to do to achieve your goals.”
Q: Recovery is a big part of any elite athlete’s training program. What do you do for recovery after your training sessions?
A: “For me, my recovery after training sessions really starts with that last 30 minutes after training or practice, making sure that I’m getting proper nutrition for my body’s recovery to start healing right away. So, within those 20 to 30 minutes after exercise, I’m making sure that I’m getting protein and hydrating properly. Whether that’s a meal or something that’s on the go, that’s kind of step one.
It’s also letting your body rest and letting your mind rest. So, recovery, for me, can look like physio, doing some mobility, stretching out my body, and getting the proper nutrition I need so my body can recover after heavy training. You know, after your muscles are fatigued and have been worn down, they need to rebuild. And that’s how you get stronger. I also use compression, and I use ice buckets, and icing. That’s all part of my recovery routine.
I’d also say recovery includes mental recovery, as well. So, taking time off from screens. Taking time to do things like sitting outdoors, reading, listening to music, and doing things that make you feel relaxed and calm. So, I like to do breathing exercises, kind of like meditation, but I don’t know if I’d call it meditation. (Laughing) But, really just kind of being with yourself, really calming down your body, and really understanding your nervous system. And then getting good rest is a really big part of recovery, as well. Making sure that you’re getting enough sleep for your mind and your body to be able to handle the amount of exertion that you’re putting your brain and your body through every day in training.”
Q: On social media, you’ve posted photos of foods that you eat, as well as recipes for your followers. When did you first start getting serious about nutrition?
A: “I’ve worked with a nutritionist for many, many years. I would say probably around 2012 onward I’ve been working with nutritionists. And I think that’s been something that has been a really big game-changer. Learning more about nutrition allows you to understand what you need to do, what works well for your body and your sport, and how to fuel properly and at the proper times.
I’ve always loved to cook. I love nutrition in the sense that I grew up in a family where we had lots of home-cooked meals and we experimented with things in the kitchen. I’d cook with my dad and my mom. That was something that I did with my family growing up. It’s something that I love to do, and I still continue to do. I love to cook with my dad. We love to try different recipes. So, I think that sparked the enjoyment of being in the kitchen and really learning more about nutrition.
I love finding different healthy recipes to try that are going to fuel me in a good way, and trying and seeing if they taste good. For the majority of the time, they do. (Laughing) So, I love to share that with my followers. I think it’s really important that people know that food is fuel. That’s what is going to fuel your body, and we can do that in a unique way. There are so many amazing foods out there that people don’t know about, and just to spice up your life, too.
I know a lot of people don’t grow up cooking in the kitchen. So, I think it’s great for them to have recipes to try because not everyone goes online to look for different recipes. If they see it, maybe they’ll try it. So, I’m just kind of sharing that with other athletes and other people in the world.”
Q: What role does nutrition play in preparing you for the Olympics and what does your supplement routine look like?
A: “Nutrition is so important, especially as an athlete. As a gymnast, we need to be fueling our bodies and taking care of our bodies to be at our best and handle the preparations that we go through. You know, this past year has been so, so difficult and very long. And it’s really about being adaptable, persevering, and knowing when the time is to peak, when to push yourself, and not burn yourself out. So, having proper nutrition is really important for that. For making sure that we can train at our best, compete at our best, hopefully prevent injuries, and keep ourselves strong building muscle. Proper nutrition allows us to put ourselves in the best position to represent Canada the best that we possibly can.
For my supplement routine, I like to make sure that I’m eating a lot of whole foods. But it’s also important with certain foods to make sure that you’re getting certain vitamins and certain supplements that you need that are approved for athletes, and making sure that you’re taking the safe ones. That’s going to help with your recovery, as well, especially when you’re so on the go.
For me, in certain situations like travel or if I have really busy days, it’s great to have those options. It’s really helpful to have whey protein for recovery after training. I’m really super on the go and busy. So, having that option for me either between training – lifting, and then working out at the gymnastics gym, or having it after I’ve done my exercises and am heading off to appointments with physio, or extra parts of the day where I need that recovery. It’s just so great to be able to have it in that time frame after training. It’s very portable and very easy.”
Q: The Tokyo Summer Olympics are probably going to be somewhat different than the previous Olympic Games that you’ve participated in for a variety of reasons. So, how do you prepare yourself for the unexpected?
A: “I think this whole year has been a lot of preparation for the unexpected. These Games are not going to look the same, and we’ve done a lot of preparation for that this year. Knowing that the Games were going to be postponed, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic, being adaptable was something that we’ve focused on a lot with our mental performance coach in the past year. Being able to handle the unknown and the uncertainty because this has been a year of unknowns and uncertainties.
So, we’ve really been doing a lot of preparation for different scenarios because if something does change then you maybe have already thought about it and know what the plan is going to be. It has really been preparing for lots of different scenarios, what those may look like, and just having that confidence built up that no matter what happens you’re going to be able to handle it, you’re going to be able to go forward, and it’s not going to faze you.
So, I think it has just been expanding your comfort zone, expanding what you can handle, and just having that confidence and that belief. Lots of preparation for many different scenarios that might occur, how you might feel, and how you are going to best handle that.”
Q: You once said that being Top 6 in the world is the dream for any Canadian gymnast. So, now that you’ve finished in the Top 5 at the 2016 Olympics and are Canada’s most decorated female gymnast ever, what are your goals and expectations for yourself at the Tokyo Summer Olympics?
A: “I think I’ve come a long way. At my first Olympic Games, I didn’t compete in the all-around. My bars were not good. Then I wanted to become an all-around gymnast. So, I focused a lot on bars, and they became a strength for me. Then competing in the all-around competition at Rio, and coming fifth in the all-around competition at the Olympics, winning a silver medal at the World Championships in Montreal, and even placing fourth at the 2019 Worlds in Germany, I think those are incredible performances and I’m very, very proud of those.
I find every competition is unique and different. It depends on the day, it depends on what the other athletes do, and it depends on your event, which is made up of four different events. So, it’s very difficult with the all-around competition. It’s not like some of the events where you just have one event and then that’s what the performance is. There are four different events that are put together and it can really come down to that day.
But for me, this past year and this preparation for these Games, I try not to focus too much on the end result. I really focus on the process. I focus on trying to perform my routine the best that I possibly can. And I think that’s all you can ask for at the end of the day. If you go out there and you’ve gave it your all, if you were able to perform the way you practiced and complete those routines in a clean and consistent way, I’m going to be really happy with that.
Sometimes those results look a little bit different, but as gymnasts we understand. I’ll give you an example. In 2017, I ended up with a silver medal at the World Championships, but I feel that I competed better and stronger at the 2019 World Championships and I came in fourth. So, sometimes it doesn’t directly relate, but I think it’s a dream to land on the podium for Canada whether that’s in the all-around event or team finals. So, I think something that we’ve been really working towards is that unity this past year. Coming in strong as a team. I think that’s going to help our team performance, and also our individual performances.”
Q: Only one other Canadian female gymnast has ever achieved the rare feat of competing in three Olympic Games. What would it mean for you to become the first Canadian woman to ever win an Olympic medal in traditional gymnastics at the Tokyo Summer Olympics?
A: “Oh my gosh, that would be an incredible accomplishment, not only for myself, but for Canadian gymnastics and for our journey that we’ve been on thus far. We’ve been working so hard to put Canadian gymnastics on the map and I feel like we’ve done such a good job of that over the past four to eight years. From the 2012 Olympics coming in fifth as a team, and then up to where we are now, and our team is so strong.
I think it would be so inspiring for other young gymnasts, other generations, and other athletes to show them that no matter where you come from if you have dreams, you can make those happen. And there’s no specific timeline. No matter what age you are, you can still achieve your dreams as long as you work hard and you believe that your dreams are possible.
So, if that was to happen, that would be an incredible thing, not only for me, but also my community and our country. It would be so, so exciting. There’s a lot of good excitement that would come with that. But with that being said, I think there’s also a lot of that that can still be done whether that Olympic medal was accomplished or not.”
Q: Your favorite motto is: Dream big, don’t let anyone else set your limits. As an advocate for female empowerment, what would you like to tell any female athletes or gymnasts out there who are maybe struggling with confidence at the moment, or aren’t sure that they have what it takes to become an Olympian like you?
A: “I would say the number one thing is to embrace yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others. Everyone is unique in their own way and we’re seeing that come through. Those things that are unique and different about you are your strengths.
For me, I’m very strong, I’m a very powerful gymnast, I’m very built, and it allows me to do very unique skills. And that has allowed me to have the results that I’ve had in my gymnastics career. There’s so much social media these days and there are so many avenues to see what everybody else is doing, and there’s too much comparison. It’s really important to love who you are, believe in yourself, believe in your journey, and really embrace that because that’s really what it has been for me.
My journey has looked so different than so many other people out there. And yet, it is so special and it has allowed me to get to where I am today and be the person I am. So, I would just say to not get in your head, really embrace you, and focus on your journey. Every path is different and I think that’s something that’s very special about it. Everyone has their own journey. It’s going to look different for everyone, it’s going to be unique, and that should be celebrated. Really have confidence in yourself, embrace yourself, embrace those things that make you strong and that make you different, and don’t be afraid to dream big.
For me, that’s one of the biggest things. You have to dream big to be able to achieve it. And don’t let anyone else tell you what you can and can’t do. That’s up to you. It’s your path, it’s your journey, and it’s what you want to accomplish. So, if you set your mind to it, then go for it.”
Q: As someone who has had to work extremely hard and overcome setbacks in order to get to where you’re at today, what does strength mean to you?
A: “Strength is something that I really relate to. Whether it’s physical or mental, I think strength comes in so many different avenues. And being able to overcome obstacles in life, not just only in sports, but throughout your whole life, there are going to be lots of things that you have to overcome. And lots of things that you have to work through as an athlete whether that’s injuries, mental blocks, falls, results that you don’t exactly want, things that don’t go the way you planned, and you need to be able to overcome those. You really need to have that strength within you to keep fueling your dreams, keep fueling that fire, being resilient, and keep moving forward.
My body type is strong. I’m a very strong gymnast, muscular, built, and that’s something that I love and embrace. So, strength in that aspect to me is really beautiful. I think strength is beauty and it comes in all different ways. It’s very unique. And then in your mind, we build strength. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone. And even when you do have that strength, it’s okay to feel like you have hard days.
So, being able to see that and get the help around you to be able to continue to keep building and keep pushing. I think it’s important to work with those people around you, and having that strength from them to help push you, as well, because it does get difficult. Mentally being able to have that strength when it gets hard to keep pushing. To keep believing in yourself, to keep being confident in yourself, and to just keep knowing and trusting the process and trusting your strength within you to keep moving you along your path.”
Q: So many people, especially young gymnasts, look up to you. So, who are the people that you look up to and why do you look up to them?
A: “Oh my gosh, there are so many. It’s hard to choose. But I really look up to my parents. They’re from South Africa and they moved here just before my sister was born. We were born in Halifax. Moving to a different country and a new city, that’s very difficult. And kind of coming into this Canadian culture with no family around. It’s very difficult. So, I’m very proud of everything they’ve been able to overcome. They’ve taught so much to my siblings and me over the years and shaped us into the people we are today, and into the person I am today. I really have learned so much about them and they’re so strong. They persevere through whatever. They’re always there to support me, my siblings, my family, and each other no matter what. They’re very, very loving. And at the end of the day, they’re just there for each other and support each other’s dreams and goals. So, I would say my parents are big role models for me.
My first coach, Keiji Yamanaka, he is a really big role model for me. He always believed in me, even when I was young, not very clean, and not very good at a lot of things in gymnastics. But he had patience and made the time to work with me. He really did believe that that could develop into something great. And I believe that it has. You know, he was really able to just be patient and work with me. He was very humble, very, very caring, and communicated very, very well with us. He has also made me into the person I am today. I think without him and his guidance at a young age, I wouldn’t be the athlete or the person I am today. So, he has been a very big role model for me.”
Q: What does it mean to you to become a member of Team MuscleTech?
A: “I’m super excited to be part of Team MuscleTech. It’s incredible to see these companies and brands supporting athletes in such a healthy way, helping us perform, and fueling our dream. And to do that in a way that we feel safe taking these supplements, feel supported, and feel like this is going to help us to get to that next level.
It’s also about having brands and companies that align with your views and the qualities in your lifestyle and your athletics. And I think that’s such an important thing to have in this partnership. So, I’m very, very excited for that moving forward. I’m very excited to give more awareness to the athletes out there about the things that can help you get to the next level, and the support that can be there along with your team, and your partnership. So, I’m very excited for that and I’m very excited to be a part of the team.”