Emily Smith – our amazing journey

Emily Smith retired from power tumbling in November 2014 after her 8th World Championship appearance. Yes, this post is extremely overdue however it took me 2.5 years to fully appreciate what she did for the Canadian tumbling world as well as her contribution to my career, personal development and sport life.

The beginning of something great!

I began coaching Emily in June 2005. While her physique was fantastic, her mental game, confidence and difficulty were sub par to be an international force in the tumbling world. I made it my first priority to prove to her that she belonged with the best and that I should be the one to take her there. Success wasn’t a possibility, it was the only option I opened to her.

Before I became her coach (less that 2 months from the switch), I had to sub-coach her group. Normally when people are substituting they follow a plan, don’t push buttons, and just get through the day. That’s not really my coaching style. I am tough, aggressive and even relentless in my pursuit for achievement until my desired goal is achieved, so I treated the following situation as if it was my personal athlete that was struggling. She hated double layouts, they scared her, she didn’t trust herself. I remember, after watching her tuck them over and over in this training, stepping on the floor and blocking her from taking her turn and saying “I’m not letting you take another turn unless it’s going to be a real double layout. I don’t want to watch anymore shitty attempts. You are waisting my time and your talent. If you are going again, it better be a double layout or don’t bother going at all.” She was crying (not dramatically) because she was scared. Scared of the double layout, scared of not being good enough, scared of screwing up… that turned out to be one of her biggest tools for success. She told me she was doing it. I stepped off the rod floor, yelled something encouraging and she began to run. She did it and it wasn’t just a nice double layout, it was damn near flawless.

I realized that day, that Emily was meant for greatness, she just needed someone to be her confidence until she was ready to have it for herself. I realize now that was the day I earned her undivided and unwavering trust. A trust that would take us through another 9 years of tremendous ups, some shaky downs but most importantly some unforgettable achievements and memories.

Canadian Trendsetter

We had 7 weeks to prepare for a World Cup in Belgium, and roughly 12 weeks till World Championships. I told her she would compete a new personal difficulty record for these events or she wasn’t going. She needed a double layout in the middle of her pass to be competitive and I needed to prove that I could handle the new coaching position I had taken. Yes, I was selfish but I also believed in her.  We prepared the passes in our gym through tears, pain, fails, falls and fatigue. At the event, she had a solid day 1 and placed herself into the 8 woman final; a normal outcome for her. However for the first time, she had medal potential. In warm up for finals, she lost herself and took a spill on the mat. It scared her, it scared me and due to federation rules, I wasn’t even on the competition floor to help, I was watching from the stands. After several minutes of the national team staff trying to change her mind frame and calm her down, they sent her to me. I remember the look in her eyes, a look of embarrassment, fear and of feeling lost. I gave her the pep talk of a life time (something I started to become known for). Remember, we had a relationship built on trust. Through my talk, I saw her expression change, I saw the fighter coming back into her body and mind, and I saw the fear fade. She left me and less than an hour later, after competing a new personal difficulty record, she became the first Canadian tumbler to ever medal on the World Cup circuit; a well deserved and incredibly meaningful bronze. Of all her medals with me, this was my 3rd favourite.

Let the success pour in!

2006 through to spring 2009 saw a lot of excitement. Emily won 3 consecutive senior national titles, made finals in every World Cup she attended and earned a few more Bronze medals including one at the World Cup in Quebec which was really special due to it being in our home country.  In 2007, she competed in her first World Team Final where she led the team to 4th! She set a new Canadian difficulty record by becoming the first to compete two full twisting double backs in one pass and cemented herself as the Queen of Canadian tumbling.


In 2009, she placed 4th in a World Cup in Poland but the highlight was prelims where she finished 1st heading into the medal round. She had never been higher than 4th after day 1 and never had a Canadian been leading the field at a World Cup in tumbling. She had beaten Olena Chabonenko on that day which to us was INSANE because she was the 3-time World Champion, the World Games Champion and easily one of the sports LEGENDS! Pressure got to her, she held back on a pass and she was very disappointed with 4th but man was it ever cool that she at one point had been 1st. In the big picture, this was HUGE and it was a moment she would learn from and be inspired by less than 2 months later.

Let the games begin, The World Games!

The World Games are a multi sport competition held every 4 years, the year following the Olympics. It is considered the Olympics for non-Olympic sports. Emily attended the event in 2005, before I was her coach and placed 7th.

In 2009, she approached the event with a very different mindset, she was going after a medal. A huge goal considering no Canadian tumbler had ever earned that before her. The competition was held in Kaohsiung, Taiwan and the venue sat about 5000 spectators. It was by far the biggest competition Emily had ever attended. I’m not sure she had even dreamed of this. It was out of this world spectacular for her. She came in as a medal contender but I wouldn’t say a favourite. 2009 had been rough for her. She was exhausted! 3.5 years of constant training and international events had beaten her up, she had unfortunately lost her national title and because of this, we had lowered her planned difficulty for the season. Physically, she was stunning! Mentally, she was done…

The preliminary round was ok. She was 5th, she had hit but the passes weren’t stellar and she was looking very cautious. I think she was feeling the pressure of wanting a medal and it caused uncharacteristic faults in her lines. I also think it was a blessing in disguise for her. There was no medal pressure now, now she was chasing. In the fresh start final, she nailed her first line and set herself up for a strong performance. Sitting 4th after one pass, she went aggressive on pass 2 and unlike Poland a few months prior, she committed to herself, her full difficulty and crushed her pass. She would definitely place higher than in 2005. With 4 people remaining she had the lead. The next girl went, Emily was still winning. Time for the top 3 after pass 1 to go. The woman sitting in 3rd went and nailed her line. We thought it was amazing, our medal excitement died because we assumed her lead would be insurmountable. When her total flashed, she was rated 2nd and a few tenths back from Emily, which meant the dream had become real and she wasn’t leaving that arena without a medal. The Russians didn’t disappoint and they maintained their top 2 podium finish. Emily was once again 3rd but this time it was on the biggest stage of our sport, and it was another first for Canadian tumbling. She looked perfect on that podium. She belonged on that podium. Seeing our flag rise above her and seeing her smile was just… I can’t even put words to it.  It was official now, no one would ever top this career.


This was my 2nd favourite medal of her career.

A few months later at World Championships, she and her teammates placed 3rd earning the first Canadian team medal since 1996. This meant Emily now had a medal from every major competition in the tumbling World! She fell in that individual final though and finished 5th. Landing would have guaranteed her bronze and a personal best performance at Worlds.

Following that meet, Emily chose to retire from the sport she had taken by storm. She felt satisfied, she felt ready to move on, I think in reality she felt burnt out. With amazing highs, comes incredibly deep lows and she needed to step away in order to realize she needed to be back.

It only lasted 6 months…

She came back, more determined than ever and with a new goal. To have a personal best at World Championships. I tested her commitment. She had to do 2 months of just basics and conditioning 5 days a week. After that we introduced skills and then we entered the competition world. She won the final world trials for Canada that year and she looked better than ever physically. She looked rested, inspired and strong!

Less than a year after her failure at World finals, she placed 3rd at the final World Cup of the season in Portugal. Her confidence was back. Her fire was back. She was back.


She made finals again at the 2010 World Championships and placed 8th with an error. UGH still not the feeling she wanted! An amazing comeback when you consider she had taken 6 months off and only started training 8 months prior; still not the desired end result.

In 2011, her personal life came crashing down on her and she turned to sport for healing.    I remember days in the gym alone with her where she would have the best turn of her life, and then just cry. I’m sorry Emily, don’t hate me for telling people this, it’s important they realize that you found strength in the lowest points and that you grew stronger through defeat. In my mind, it defines you just as much as your infectious laugh, your breath taking appearance and your list of accomplishments.

She trained for Birmingham World Championships with more guts than I’d ever seen from her. She was a woman with nothing to lose. Her fear of failing was non-existent, her fear of hard skills had disappeared. She needed to be great. She needed to belong. She needed to find herself again and the rod floor was where she was doing that.

It was the most inspiring character building moment I’ve ever witnessed. I again had to be her confidence, I again, was the one she trusted and I took that responsibility with extreme care and extreme privilege. She needed “us”, that relationship to be perfect, unbreakable, and I hope she realizes it always will be.

Her worlds were perfect by the way! I remember watching her compete her last pass in finals, a pass she was unveiling at that competition and her killing it. I looked at the person next to me and said “Now she can retire. Now she can be satisfied.”

She wasn’t, haha, well I mean she was but she had renewed her love for the sport and she set her sights on World Games 2013 in Columbia as her next athletic venture. She also left that Worlds with a twinkle in her eye for a certain young man :p and luckily for her, he had a twinkle in his eye that matched.

The Final Partnership that inspired the final great performance

Jon and Emily were explosive together in the gym. I feel insanely lucky that they graced my coaching career and even more so that they did it a the same time. They created a culture of greatness within their group. Everyday was exciting, everyday had new moments to cheer for, to inspire and to look forward to.

They both qualified for Cali, Columbia 2013 and it really was a great preparation. Emily was different this time though. She was 26, her body was tired and she had to train smart. Rather than difficulty, we trained execution (new rules encouraged it) and her key skills were still valuable which was a bonus for us.

World Games #3! That is crazy! Emily had now spent a decade in the top 10 of international tumbling rankings. Very few men or women can say that and very few had attended 2 or more impressively 3 World Games. This meet was FUN! It was like icing on a career or greatness. There was no result that could be considered a disappointment in my opinion. I say that because she was so happy with her life, all aspects of it, that she was tumbling for herself and with pure passion for sport. Nothing to prove, nothing to lose, just love for what she was doing.

The crowd was so LOUD! The stadium was sold out with nearly 10,000 spectators. This was the biggest venue she’d ever been in, and yet, she embraced it rather than being passed by it. She talked about how cool it was and how energizing the environment felt! In competition, Emily did what she always did. She had a steady but not spectacular prelims which put her in a good position heading into finals. In finals, she delivered a solid first line and while standing for her 2nd, we knew that as long as she landed, a medal was guaranteed. What a different feeling than 4 years prior. What a different woman from 4 years prior. You don’t know pressure till you’ve stood waiting for judges knowing that your ‘normal’ will mean mission accomplished. It is mentally so much more difficult than chasing and just swinging away!  She had a different attitude this time. It was calm, it was quiet, it was real confidence. She hit… I knew she would hit. Another Bronze, an amazing bronze.

I did my research. I found out that only 2 women have ever medaled twice at World Games for tumbling. Emily is one them.


When I saw her on the podium, I no longer felt like she needed me to be her confidence. She was 100% behind herself, 100% sure of herself and more proud than she had ever been. In a way she had slayed Goliath. She had taken what seemed like an insurmountable moment in life, stood up to it and proved it hadn’t and would’t ever get the best of her. She chose to be successful, she chose to be strong, and she chose to be happy.

This was my absolute favourite medal because it was definitely the hardest one mentally to get to.

She continued until Worlds 2014 when she decided to call it, once and for all. The last 18 months were just fun. Yes she still worked hard but mostly she just played the sport and loved the ride. She laughed more and she stressed less. I finally saw her look satisfied. The last pass I watched was brilliant. It didn’t come with a medal and I really didn’t care. I don’t think she did either. It was just yet another beautifully hit pass from a stunning athlete.

Remember Her

I just wrote out a series of athletic performance stories most of which you didn’t know and with back stories that no one, except myself and Emily knew, went through and accepted. But those achievements aren’t her legacy, they are just a part.

Judges will remember her physical presence, her lines, her power and the proud smile she gave them when she landed.

Athletes from around the world will remember her laugh, her willingness to always enjoy the events and her ever present smile. Her ability to cheer them on even when they were rivals and her ability to create a supportive atmosphere within a group even at the most high pressure events.

Coaches will remember her tumbling, her humble attitude to her accomplishments and of course her longevity in the sport.

I will remember her as a the face that helped brighten my day, everyday for 9 years.  She had grit, determination, dedication, passion and an abundance of energy. I grew up as a coach because of this girl. I found my potential and vulnerabilities because of this girl. Most importantly, I got a lifetime of amazing memories and experiences because of this girl.

Emily’s sport accomplishments include:

2-time World Games medalist
3-time World Championship finalist
World Team medalist
7-time World Cup medalist
Canadian Difficulty Record holder

I am so thankful I got to play an active part in such an illustrious career. She will always be irreplaceable to me. She will always be a star to me. Her ability to face a challenge head on, while smiling and laughing will continue to inspire me.

You were the best kid. I will miss our criss crossing high five RAWR forever. I will have dreams of your tumbling forever, and I will tell our stories to my future athletes until the day I retire. You were the ONE! You will forever my ONE.

Love Den XO



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One Response to Emily Smith – our amazing journey

  1. Pingback: coach Denis Vachon and Emily Smith – Gymnastics Coaching.com

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