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Wednesday September 2, 2009

Gymnastics coach trained Olympians

With a firm but gentle hand, she gave hundreds of students the gift of self-confidence

Gladys Hartley never took a gymnastics class but she coached many Canadian gymnasts who became national and international champions, including several Olympians.

During 21 years as the heart and soul of the Flicka Gymnastics Club in North Vancouver, she developed the sport and put British Columbia on the international gymnastics map.

Known affectionately as Mrs. Flicka, she taught hundreds of young gymnasts from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, producing 10 provincial and national champions and sending competitors to Pan-American, World and Olympic games. Among her Olympians were her daughter Sandra and sisters Anita and Sandra Botnen.

A trained dancer who studied ballet, tap and aerobatics as a child, Ms. Hartley became a professional figure skater and roller skater. In the 1960s, she moved to the development side of gymnastics, bringing to it her skills and knowledge of the other sports.

She taught her pupils the finer points of tumbling, balance, pointed toes, straight legs and proper posture along with other gymnastic requirements. More importantly, however, she instilled in them two intangibles that would serve them well long after their gymnastic days were over - self-confidence and the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

She never focused on their weight - there were no weigh-ins - nor did she demand long hours of training, stressing instead the importance of their education.

"She was like our mother - loving and benevolent," said Tami Knight, a student of Ms. Hartley's in the 1970s. "As a teacher, she was an omnipresent person who never yelled or raised her voice," said Ms. Knight, a junior national gymnastics champion.

"She had a gentle but firm hand. You always wanted to please her. We weren't afraid of her because she was so loving." Now a circus-arts coach, Ms. Knight patterns her style after that of her mentor.

The Flicka Gymnastics Club had a handful of students when Ms. Hartley assumed its helm. "She didn't create the club but took it on in its early stages when it wasn't really an entity yet and made it into a huge competitive elite club," said her daughter Sandra, 1968 Canadian gymnastics champion, who was on the Canadian team in the Mexico City Olympic Games that year.

Ms. Hartley also made her mark in the gymnastics world as a judge, choreographer and interpreter of world and Olympic compulsory routines. Always willing to share her broad knowledge, she trained coaches. "For her day, to be coaching without any reliance on others and to have coaches under her was quite something," her daughter said. "Coaching development was a very important part of her provincial contribution."

For the thousands of volunteer hours she devoted to gymnastics, Ms. Hartley was inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 as a builder.

Her teaching skills were recognized beyond Vancouver: she was made a provincial coach and the Canadian Gymnastics Federation invited her to travel with the national team during the 1970s to competitions around the world. The federation made her a

lifetime member.

"By bringing together her ballet and acrobatic skills she raised the marker, and she probably raised it for the entire country in terms of gymnastics," her daughter said.

Gladys Hartley was born in Winnipeg, the middle of three children and the only girl. Her father, Tom Crow, worked for Eaton's department store; her mother, Sarah, was a homemaker who sewed the family's clothes and put up preserves and other staples for the long Winnipeg winters. She created and sewed her daughter's dancing and skating costumes.

As an infant, Gladys had stomach problems and grew into a very skinny child. Her mother, a plump woman, was concerned that neighbours would look at the two of them and think she was eating all the food.

Unable to put any fat on her daughter, out of desperation she enrolled her in dance classes to build some muscle. Gladys took well to dance, especially ballet, becoming so proficient that when she was 16 years old, the fledgling Royal Winnipeg Ballet asked her to join the company. She was still in high school but already teaching dance classes.

Growing up, Gladys and her friend Ethel Page were known as the GO GO Girls because they were always ready for a new adventure, said Judy Fosty, Ms. Page's daughter.

The ballet company was a new adventure but she left after one year. She lost interest after meeting her future husband, Victor Hartley, in a tumbling class at the Winnipeg YMCA. They married in 1941.

Mr. Hartley came from a poor family with eight children, and at the age of 4 delivered newspapers to help his parents. He dropped out of school at 14 to do menial jobs for Dun & Bradstreet. He was smart and worked his way up to credit analyst, remaining with the company 49 years. He was a competitive canoeist, figure skater, roller skater, and 11 years older than Gladys.

He presented her with a grand adventure that would last a lifetime and make her a gymnastics icon.

They clicked personally and professionally, and soon were dancing together on ice and in the roller rink, doing lifts and adagio.

Mr. Hartley was also performing with his friend Bob Cotton as an acrobatic duo and invited her to join them, forming The Acrobatic Trio, a very successful act which they took to Ontario when Mr. Hartley was transferred to Fort William in 1948. During their four-year stay, Ms. Hartley gave birth to a daughter, taught dance classes and performed with the trio at the Fort William Skating Club and other venues in the surrounding area.

In 1952, Mr. Hartley was transferred to Vancouver, where the family settled in North Vancouver. There were no roller-skating rinks so they focused on ice skating, captivating audiences with their routines in Stars on Ice productions in which they skated with Olympic gold medalists Dick Button and Sonja Henie.

Ms. Hartley was soon head choreographer for 500 students at the Vancouver Skating Club. She also taught and sewed costumes for the annual skate extravaganza at the Vancouver Forum.

When the Hartleys decided to build their own home, they did it the pioneer way, without any power tools. Ms. Hartley helped clear the lot, put up walls and lay floors in between teaching dance classes in church halls and giving birth to a son.

She became involved in gymnastics when her daughter began taking classes at Flicka in 1962. The following year, the club founders handed her the keys and left town. Anyone else might have been bewildered, but she used her background in movement to teach acrobatics to the gymnastic students. Everything else she needed to know about the sport she learned as she went.

Unintentionally, she quickly developed a feeder system that provided her a steady abundance of students. Her dance pupils wanted to get into Flicka and her gymnastics students enrolled in her dance classes because they saw how dancing helped them develop the perfect posture required in their sport. As the club grew in size and reputation, she travelled around the province holding clinics for gymnasts and coaches, to further develop the sport.

Two events in 1984 prompted her to retire: Her husband died from congestive heart failure; and the Olympic Games were held that summer in Los Angeles, which, for her, meant four more years of training gymnasts before the next Games. She was tired and decided to move on.

She had lived a very active life and was not idle for long. She joined the Silver Harbour Centre and taught and danced with a seniors' group, Happy Tappers.

She had always sewn but now she had time to indulge in other crafts. She crocheted baby clothes and afghans, knitted sweaters, made quilts and did silk printing. Relatives and friends were the recipients of her handiwork which included many placemats and stained-glass projects. "Just about anything that came along that was a craft she was right there doing it, and she did it as well or better than anyone else," Sandra said.

Ms. Hartley was bothered most of her life by the undiagnosed stomach problem of her childhood but she never let it affect her dancing or teaching. She was in declining health for some time before she spent her last three months in hospital.

A humble woman, she never bragged about the many lives she touched or of her contributions to the growth of gymnastics in Canada. "She never flaunted her achievements of which there were many," said Ms. Fosty.


Gladys Hartley was born Jan. 17, 1921, in Winnipeg. She died June 27, 2009, of organ failure at Lions Gate Hospital in Vancouver. She was 88. She leaves her children Sandra and Ted and grandchildren Catherine and Kristina. She was predeceased by her husband Victor in 1984.

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