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Canadian men's gymnastics team mines Pan Am silver after high of Olympic berth

SANTIAGO, Chile — After achieving an elusive goal, the Canadian men's gymnastics team dug into its reserves to get on the Pan American Games podium Saturday.
Team Canada William Emard looks for the bar as he soars through the air in the men's gymnastics team event at the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile on Saturday Oct. 21, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

SANTIAGO, Chile — After achieving an elusive goal, the Canadian men's gymnastics team dug into its reserves to get on the Pan American Games podium Saturday.

Canada qualified a team in Olympic men's artistic gymnastics for first time in 15 years at the world championship in Antwerp, Belgium earlier this month.

Rene Cournoyer, Zachary Clay, Felix Dolci, William Emard and Jayson Rampersad were back on the rings, bars, floor, vault and pommel horse Saturday in Santiago, Chile, to take Pan Am silver behind the United States.

The five men claimed Canada's first Olympic berth in men's team gymnastics since 2008 by finishing fourth in qualification in Antwerp. They advanced to the Oct. 3 final to place seventh.

"We had the biggest rush of adrenalin that I ever experienced in my life in the sports," Emard said.

The gymnasts had just enough days at home in Canada to feel the inevitable comedown before boarding a plane to Santiago, Chile.

"Riding the wave would be ideal. That's not the reality, though. There's always a huge crash after such a big event like worlds," said Cournoyer, who was Canada's lone male gymnast in Tokyo's Olympics two years ago. 

"We just recovered, that was the main goal, and then building it back up in order to come back here and show good gymnastics. I think we managed that pretty well, even if it was a huge challenge."

For 28-year-old veteran Clay, who Emard called "grandpa," punching an Olympic team ticket felt overdue.

"It's sometimes hard to get the words out, but we were all just so happy," said Clay of Orillia, Ont. "It's been way too long since a Canadian men's team has been to the Olympics. Pan Ams is that one extra step to the Olympics for us and we're really excited."

Canada competed in the first grouping of countries Saturday alongside host Chile with raucous crowd support, Mexico, Argentina and Puerto Rico. 

Clay, Emard and Dolci of Laval, Que., Cournoyer of Repentigny, Que., and Rampersad of Oakville, Ont., threw down a combined score of 246.794 for the U.S. to chase in the second group.

The Americans bettered that mark with 249.860. Bronze-medallist Brazil scored 245.394.

After strong vaulting in their fourth round of six apparatus, a hectic three weeks caught up to the Canadians with a few slips on the parallel and high bars.

"Considering the amazing result in Antwerp, and the week where they kind of crashed down a little bit, I think this was a really tremendous effort to get back up," said their coach Ed Van Hoof. "They were really wanting to get back up for this.

"Unfortunately, just a couple of falls on parallel bars and high bar at the end just took the shine off because up until then, they were doing really well."

The Pan Ams are useful prep for Paris by bringing the gymnasts together again to compete as a team, Van Hoof said. Emard in his Pan American Games debut is gathering multi-sport festival experience for Paris.

Emard and Dolci qualified sixth and seven respectively for Monday's men's all-around final.

Cournoyer's first Olympic experience in Tokyo was solitary both before and during it. 

"Last time in Tokyo, yes, I competed alone, that's fine, but the whole preparation, I was by myself," the 26-year-old recalled. "I didn't have a team to train with, it was still very COVID-active, so most people weren't even training at all. The whole preparation was very stressful and very difficult. 

"So now it's going to be entirely different to have a team to support me to go through the same training with me. So much more fun. A world of difference."

Canada's men placed ninth in Beijing in 2008, when Kyle Shewfelt overcame broken legs suffered less than a year out to compete there.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 21, 2023.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press