23rd Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships
Lake Buena Vista (USA), April 16 – 18, 2012
LAKE BUENA VISTA (USA), FIG Office, April 15, 2012: Every day, when coach Natalia goes into Johannesburg's violent and drug infested Westbury neighborhood to pick up several children to take to the Golden Lions Gymnastics Club, she gets strange looks. A white woman in their neighborhood is, to say the least, rare.
One day the Johannesburg traffic police stopped her and inquired what she was doing. "I'm here for the children," Natalia said. They didn't seem to believe her. "Do you have drugs?" they asked her.
The locals don't bother Natalia. In one of Johannesburg's poorer neighborhoods, they realize that at Golden Lions, their children get classes, camraderie, and best of all, hope. "The people understand," said club owner Wessel Oosthuizen, "that she is here to give them a chance for something better."
The youngsters in the club have an example to look up to in the form of South African Acro pairs stars Natalie Friesling and Matome Tshishonga, who are competing at their second Acro Worlds together. They have been partners for five years, but this Acro Worlds will decide their future.
"It's very important for us and for our country as well," Tshishonga said.
The pair is aiming to qualify among the top eight couples and advance to the mixed pairs final. Qualification to finals would mean they also qualify to the 2013 World Games in Cali, Colombia, and that means they would be eligible for funding from the South African Olympic Committee that they need in order to continue their training.
Tshishonga and Friesling's partnership has flourished amidst funding obstacles. To earn the money to pay for their trip to Acro Worlds, the Golden Lions organized exhibitions inside Johannesburg shopping malls. They bought the cheapest airline tickets they could find, which involved plane changes in Dubai, New York and Detroit before they reached Orlando. In spite of the hardships (and the jetlag), the duo has been cheerful and animated throughout the training sessions, constantly smiling and laughing.
Qualifying to finals would also increase attention to the sport in South Africa, where "it's soccer, soccer, soccer, rugby, rugby and cricket and more cricket," Friesling, 18, laughed. In addition to the mixed pair, the Golden Lions Club has several very promising junior Acro gymnasts, some of whom will be competing at the World Age Group Championships next weekend.
Tshishonga and Friesling realize that for the moment, the youngsters in their club are looking up to them. They also have aspirations outside of gymnastics: Friesling, who will finish high school this year, hopes to go on to study business management. Tshishonga, who coaches the younger children in addition to training with Friesling three and a half hours per day, would like to become a chef.
Beside event qualification, 22-year-old Tshishonga added that he has one other goal: find some cornmeal in Orlando to cook pap, the traditional South African porridge that he loves.