When Janeen Belsardi was in junior high school, she would occasionally go with her mother to work. Janeen’s mom was an elementary school classroom aide, and Janeen found herself naturally drawn to helping out the kids alongside her mom. She feels she was born to be a teacher. From 1987 to 2011, Janeen was the head Rhythmic Gymnastics coach at Redwood Empire Gymnastics, in Petaluma. She also taught REG camps, basic artistic gymnastics, the boy’s team, and knew every kid in the gym. So yes, she is a teacher, a great one, and she has affected thousands of children’s lives throughout the years in a positive way, and continues to do so in her current teaching position. Janeen is loved by her family, friends, co-workers (I feel blessed to have been one), and most of all, her former and current students. She was kind enough to agree to an interview and I’m thrilled to share it with you. I know you’ll enjoy reading about Janeen’s gymnastics story, how it impacted her life, and her passion for rhythmic and all forms of gymnastics.
How and at what age did you get involved with gymnastics?
It was 1980. I was ten years old. At the time, I was taking dance classes, jazz, ballet, tap, and acrobatics. I went to the fair that year and saw the team girls from Redwood Empire Gymnastics doing a demonstration. It was a mini-tramp demonstration and I thought to myself, ‘I want to do that’. Honestly, I was getting a little bored with ballet and I wanted to do something a little bit more. I remember saying to myself, ‘If my dance school ever closes, I’m going to do gymnastics at REG’, and about six months later, it did close! So I started going to REG.
When did you get involved with rhythmic gymnastics? Did you have a favorite rhythmic gymnast that inspired you?
I started in artistic gymnastics and it was my dream to get on the team and wear their cool blue and yellow leotard. It was pretty clear, however, four years later, that I wasn’t going to do that. Then in 1984, one of the REG coaches, Mary Lim, who had been involved in rhythmic gymnastics in college, wanted to start a rhythmic program with the eventual goal of competition. So I, along with three other girls, were hand-picked to be invited into this class. I liked the idea of being on the team, so I started the class and began competing a year later. I competed in 1985 as a Class Three, and in 1986 as a Class Two. Those were the designations back then, Class Three-Beginner, Class Two-Intermediate, and Class One-Advanced, and then Elite. I was inspired by the 1984 Olympian Valerie Zimring. She became my role model.
Please describe what you feel is the essence of rhythmic gymnastics. What equipment is used and what are the talents and skills required for the sport?
The biggest distinction between artistic and rhythmic gymnastics is that in artistic gymnastics, gymnasts work on the equipment, the beam, bars, etc., and in rhythmic gymnastics, gymnasts work with the equipment, the ball, hoop, ribbon, club, or rope. We’re actually manipulating the equipment while we’re dancing and tumbling. That’s the main thing. The dance we do is more balletic than is done in artistic gymnastics. It used to be more so than it is now. I think it’s more athletic now, but with that balletic quality. We do leaps, jumps, balances, and turns. And flexibility is very important.
You were the first competitive rhythmic gymnast from Sonoma County. That sounds like it was a difficult thing to accomplish. Can you explain how the rhythmic scene was in this area at the time, and how you managed to arrive at that level?
At the time there was a gym in San Rafael, Gym Marin, and they had a decent sized team for the area. They had a national team member, Laura David, and her mom was actually the coach there. But that was really it, us and them, and several teams in the Southern California area. It was very different then. It was very slim pickings as far as rhythmic gymnasts go, anyway. For our meets we had maybe three or four a year. They came to our gym and we went to their gym, and then the State competition would be at their gym, with a Regional competition in Southern California.
From our first class, I was the only one who competed in that first year. In my second year, there were two other girls who were competing too.
What value do you place on the gymnast/coach relationship?
Obviously, it’s a pretty high value. You’ve got to trust each other. It goes both ways. You’re around each other so much, especially if you’re on the team and competing. When you’re training, you’re in the gym three hours a day, four or five days a week and you travel together and sometimes room together. Then you’re together for eight hours at a competition. There’s got to be something there. I think it makes it personal. I don’t feel like it was just a coach-gymnast relationship for me and my girls. Sometimes I was a parent, a doctor, and a psychologist. It’s all there by virtue of spending so much time with each other. My students were like my kids.
In retrospect, what do you feel are the best benefits being involved with rhythmic gymnastics gave you? How did it contribute to your personal development in general?
For me it was confidence. I was a shy person who never liked to get up in front of anybody and do anything. So to get out on the floor where literally everybody is watching you and you’re being judged on everything you do and how you look and move, you get a thick skin pretty quickly. Once I retired from rhythmic, I was a senior in high school and I wanted to go out for the swim team. I just wanted to be a part of the team and represent my school. I couldn’t swim very well but I tried out. I got on the team, I swam competitively, and I earned my letter. I don’t know if I would have done that if I hadn’t already competed in rhythmic. Swimming is so different. You don’t get judged. There are seven other people in the water with you. Nobody’s watching you or paying attention to you, but in rhythmic, you’re out there and you’re exposed. People are scrutinizing you. You’re a 9.975. You ask yourself, ‘why am I not a 9.985? What did I do wrong?’ When you come back from a meet you ask, ‘Where did that tenth go?’ That’s how closely you’re being scrutinized. You have to say to yourself, ‘It’s just a meet. They’re not judging me personally. They’re just doing their job. They’re not saying I’m a bad person. I just need to point my toes.’ Then I’d go back in the gym and I’d work on that. So a good work ethic was another thing I developed. Also, how to be as prepared as you can be for things and learning how to let the bad stuff roll off your back. I’m still working on that, but yeah, that’s something you learn as a gymnast.
You coached both artistic and rhythmic gymnastics. At what point did you begin your coaching career? You were the Rhythmic Head Coach at REG for how long?
When my coach announced she was pregnant with her first child and was retiring, that was the end of my rhythmic career because there were no other coaches around to replace her. That’s when I stopped and joined the swim team. I started coaching at REG camps, and then I got into more basic classes and I don’t recall if REG approached me, or if I approached them about bringing rhythmic back, but I know we had a competition team in 1988, and I had three gymnasts on my team, so that would have been my senior year in high school. I would guess I started coaching rhythmic in late 1987. I think to me coaching seemed like the next logical step. I didn’t want rhythmic to go away. It was at REG for two years and nobody knew what it was in 1988. I wanted to get it out there.
I was coaching artistic classes in the gym too so I was able to recruit a little bit too from there. I’d notice a student was flexible or spunky and tell them about the rhythmic program and invite them to try it. And the girls in the gym saw my team girls working out and they’d say, ‘Oh, ribbons and hoops, cool! What are they doing with the balls?’ So they got interested in it that way. It was kind of an in-house thing you could say. I didn’t get too many people coming in from the outside at that time. Often times an artistic team gymnast who had gotten injured would come over because they couldn’t do artistic gymnastics anymore. It was a way to keep them in the gym. We did get some of those from other gyms in the area too. We had a lot of turnover. Most were in there for two to three years, maximum, and then they moved on. A lot of them were older, too. I didn’t have a child age division until maybe ten years ago. We competed a lot of senior age girls, who were fourteen and over. The former artistic girls could still see their friends, they worked out fewer hours, and rhythmic was easier on their body, so it gave them a few years longer in the gym. I was the head Rhythmic coach for 23 years. Part of me wanted it to go on forever, but the other part of me knew that it couldn’t. When I stopped in 2011, it felt like it was time to stop.
What are the best things being a coach gave you?
I have a strong internal calling to be a teacher, so I was happy to be teaching. And the bond I established with my students and seeing the bonds the students had with each other was huge. We became family. I was invited to one of my gymnast’s weddings and a baby shower. I smile when I see a wedding picture on Facebook, and the bridal party is all gymnasts and former teammates. And personally, travel was a big thing for me. I’ve been to Atlanta, Boston, Hawaii, and more places. That never would have happened on my own, so it’s something I’m grateful for.
Rhythmic gymnastics seems to be gaining more respect and popularity here in the USA. Do you think that is the case?
Yes. From 1984, rhythmic has changed night and day. I can’t even imagine competing the same things I see on T.V. today. When I started, there was a rule that you couldn’t go through the vertical. You couldn’t do walkovers or cartwheels, and you were limited to forward, backward, and side rolls. Today, there are walkovers all over the place. You still can’t do aerials or anything like that, but you can do so much with a walkover. It’s made it more exciting. A lot of kids that I talked to about rhythmic didn’t want to do it because they wanted to tumble. At least now you can do that and it’s got a little bit more artistic gymnastics in it. As far as the Olympics goes, there was a rhythmic gymnast from Marin who was a 1996 Olympian, Jessica Davis. That brought a lot more interest around here for rhythmic I think. The United States hasn’t done too well internationally until quite recently. This year’s group team is the first to earn a spot in the Olympics from competing in the world championships, so that’s big. And Laura Zeng qualified as an individual.
And I think the coaching has gotten better. We’ve had a lot of Eastern European coaches coming in and they’ve brought a lot of expertise. That’s a whole different level of training and styles.
Also, I see rhythmic gymnasts are staying in the sport longer and they’re staying to coach and to judge, so now we’ve got this generation of former rhythmic gymnasts who know what it’s like to compete and have been coached by those coaches and now are able to pass it on. It’s been a thirty year process and it’s still very young in the U.S. When you think of the success that we’re having now, I think we’re finally getting noticed on the international scene.
We have good people in the head office at USA Gymnastics. That’s the direction they pointed the J.O. Program in, to compete on the international level. Kids are competing locally with the intent of some day competing internationally. And so everything kind of trickled down. And there were some big changes as far as requirements go in rhythmic with handling, dance, how many body skills, and difficulty requirements. It got pretty difficult pretty quickly. I think it happened when they switched from the class designations to the current levels one through ten.
You are no longer coaching rhythmic gymnastics, however, you’re still working with children in the school system. Do you feel you are still using your coaching skills and applying them to your students, maybe in a different arena?
Yes. I currently work at Miwok Elementary School in the after school enrichment program for K-6th grade, and the good thing is I do have the occasional opportunity to teach sometimes with ribbons, hoops, and balls. I hand the equipment to a kid and put some music on, and I’ve literally gone for two hours just watching them dance. And that’s for everybody. Girls and boys are into it. I’ve had special education, non-verbal kids who just pick up a ribbon and start dancing. Sometimes I say, “Hey, if you want to do something cool, you can try this, and they say, “Aw, what? How do you do that?” So that’s been fun. Sometimes I hear my gymnastics coach coming out in the classroom and it’s still teaching. You’re not in a gym on a floor, you’re in a classroom. But kids still have different learning styles. They’re still kids, so you just take what you learned while coaching and apply it to art, science, or whatever.
Thank you, Janeen, for sharing your time, experiences, and wisdom with us. If you, dear reader, are a former student or co-worker of Janeen’s, please share this article with any other REG folks you know. Let’s get the word out that Janeen is doing well and still helping children on their journey to adulthood. Thanks for reading!