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Anna-Marie dreams of representing Sri Lanka in Rhythmic Gymnastics

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At 17, Sri Lankan-born Anna-Marie Ondaatje has a collection of achievements and a stellar reputation as an athlete that precedes her. Residing in Canada, she has big dreams of representing Sri Lanka at the 2020 Olympics. We sat down with this rhythmic gymnast on her recent visit to Colombo, to talk about the sport and her plans for the future.

We’re all guilty of busting a move now and then and Anna-Marie is no exception. “I love dancing,” the bashful gymnast enthusiastically exclaimed. Her father Alistair Ondaatje encouraged his daughter’s passion for dance noting her flexibility and seeing that “something” in his daughter at the tender age of nine that takes most of us decades to unearth.

She was put into rhythmic gymnastics, a complex sport which combines the elements of ballet, gymnastics and dance and apparatus manipulation. Anna -Marie enjoys the whole package of the sport from the technicalities of the dance, moving to the music and training her expression. Her enthusiasm bursts through as she exclaims “I love the elegance, the expression to the music, the rhythm, everything!”

Apparatus manipulation, a robotic term associated with the graceful sport, is exceedingly challenging and adds to the allure of the act. Each performer has to master the use of five apparatuses – the ball, the hoop, the ribbon, the rope and the clubs. Whilst most of us are attempting to juggle a couple of appointments in a day, Anna- Marie relentlessly trains five hours a day, six days a week to master the sport she loves.

Much like how students have to sit for their dreaded finals and showcase a year’s worth of learning on a piece of paper, Anna – Marie is given 90 seconds in a performance to showcase her dexterity and experience.

When asked if it differs greatly from other forms of gymnastics she sagely states “It differs big time!” The complexity of the aspects of the sport, the performer’s ability to manipulate their expression and apparatus, the technicalities of the dance and ballet make it a picturesque routine with an arduous backstory.

A crowd favourite the ribbon swirls in the air, a graceful partner to these gymnasts’ performances. But “there’s more to it than dancing with a ribbon,” Anna-Marie educates us on a performer’s ability to make it look so effortless, going past the make-up and sparkling costumes. As rhythmic gymnasts they give life not only to their own movements but to inanimate apparatus.

“You need to achieve technicality of the routine and the artistry of the apparatus,” the young gymnast states.

Anna- Marie pictured on our Magazine cover and here with her coach Svetlana Joukave

She’s very young, but apparently not so in the world of rhythmic gymnastics where most performers start retiring at around 20. Under the guidance of reputed coaches Svetlana Joukova and Mimi Masleva , Anna-Marie goes through demanding training routines that make her the athlete she is today.

Asked how she spends a normal day, she laughs “It’s not been a “normal” day since I was nine years old”. She trains from Monday to Saturday, Sunday being her day of respite where she catches up on school with family and friends. Homeschooled, she is in the process of wrapping up high school, a challenge she eagerly looks forward to.

Her dreams are visionary and inspiring. Her ultimate goal is to represent Sri Lanka in Tokyo at the 2020 Olympic Games. “Sri Lanka is my parents’ home country,” she says simply. “They have given me this sport, and I’m giving back to them, to the country.”

Anna- Marie talks fondly about her family of seven, parents, two older sisters, a younger sister and a younger brother – her biggest support system who have taken much of their time and effort to be there for her, a fact she values greatly. Her close relationship with them helps her keep sane during trying times. “My oldest sister’s my psychiatrist,” she laughs as she fondly looks back to her family, discreetly observing the interview.

Her journey to Sri Lanka cemented her place in the Sri Lankan sports system, which she fondly refers to as her new “team”, taking her a few steps closer to her ultimate mission. “I can’t wait to introduce rhythmic gymnastics to Sri Lankans and encourage young girls to participate in this glorious sport and bring more opportunities for female athletes.”

Rhythmic gymnastics has helped Anna-Marie in accomplishing more than a stellar reputation in the sport but also with helping to “bring her out of her shell”. “When I’m being judged (at competitions) I now feel the need to put myself completely out there in 90 seconds, I haven’t got time to think or reflect, I just need to feel and flow,” she says.

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Yevegeniya Kanayeva is her role model and Anna-Marie reminisces about the exhilaration she felt when first watching the Olympian perform. Asked whether she too can one day accomplish the feat of winning two golds, she humbly exclaims “No one can beat that!” She also admires 2016 Olympic gold medalist Magarita Mamum for representing her father’s country Bangladesh in the sport, an inspiration to her own goals.

So much time and energy invested in this sport for around eight years of her life, does she ever tire of relentlessly and routinely doing the same thing? How does she find the motivation to push herself to do better each time? “It’s not what I have to do. It’s what I love to do,” she says.

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