Sunday, September 6, 2009

Orlando Has Found Her Niche Here


The athlete face of Toronto's bid for the 2015 Pan Am Games is pretty, yes, but what's more impressive about rhythmic gymnast Alexandra Orlando is the important new career she's carving out for herself.

Last summer, Orlando, 22, clinched the top spot in a list of top 50 sexiest female athletes competing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After placing 18th in Beijing, she returned home for her third year of political science at the University of Toronto. With longtime injuries to tend to, Orlando was all too aware that stopping gymnastics training could make for a difficult transition this year.

But to her surprise and relief, Orlando's post-competitive life so far has been, as she put it, "incredible."

"I always knew this was going to be a really hard year of no training," Orlando said. "I loved what I was doing so much, and I was really worried that I wouldn't be able to find things that I loved to fill that void. I really didn't think I would feel this fulfilled and happy after stopping."

Orlando has found a new purpose in sport beyond pushing her body on the gymnastics mat -- a passion for athlete advocacy. At last October's AthletesCan forum, the yearly gathering of national team athlete representatives, Orlando was one of four athletes elected to its board for three years. In June, she's going to the International Olympic Academy in Greece for two weeks. And she's the athlete rep on the 2015 Pan Am bid committee, travelling to Acapulco last November to do the initial bid presentation. She'll also go to Mexico this November for the final bid presentation.

"It has definitely been one of my favourite experiences as an athlete," Orlando said of the bid work. "I just want to make sure that athletes are represented, we're being thought of, and we're making sure the Games are an athlete-centered Games."

Orlando won a record six gold medals at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia, and three gold at the 2007 Pan Am Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she was named Canadian flag bearer for the closing ceremony. In a sport dominated by Eastern Europeans, Orlando was the only rhythmic gymnast from North or South America to qualify for Beijing.

These days, her goals are to set up an athlete council for Gymnastics Canada and strengthen communication between athlete reps from different countries and those on the IOC athlete council. The surprise nomination and election by her peers at the AthletesCan forum sparked her journey down this new path -- one she can't see herself abandoning to go back to the athlete life.

"I realize I had blinders on when I was training and had no idea what was going on in other sports," said Orlando. "I just got so pumped up and motivated and I came home [from the forum] and said, 'This is what I want to do, and really take it seriously.' I think this is an area I'm going to stay in for a while."


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