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177: Stella Umeh

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Stella Umeh


This Week's Interview

This week Canadian gymnastics legend, artist, Olympic all-around finalist, World vault finalist, 13-year Cirque du Soleil veteran, entrepreneur and mutli-NCAA champion, Stella Umeh tells her story. Known for her incredible power, she combined a dance background to perform floor routines that had ballerinas and jazz dance fans alike, sighing with ecstasy.  In November, Stella and her husband, Sam, (head electrician for Cirque’s Kurios show) had a tour stop in California. Jessica joined Stella and her 3-month-old daughter, Billie (cue adorable baby gurgles in the background) to discuss what she’s learned from her prolific career :

On being an atypical Canadian gymnast in her era and being labeled as difficult for standing up for herself and doing things her own way: “I work hard, I play hard. I’m responsible because I love what I’m doing, I’m not going to jeopardize it (also because I don’t want to get injured)…. I would always do the job but because I didn’t fit the mold, it looked like I was fooling around or Mickey Mousing or I wasn’t taking things seriously. But I don’t think you have to completely conform and lose yourself to take something seriously–because if you are meant to do it, and it is your passion, it’s going to be serious regardless of who you are or what you look like. You see a person’s heart and soul in what they are doing; and that is what people should be looking at.”

  • Injuries and accidents:
    • Crying and developing an eye twitch every single day for a year she performed on Teeter Board in Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère because she was terrified of the apparatus.
    • Competing with a sprained neck and back.
    • Competing with labyrinthitis, a condition caused by California-specific seasonal allergies, which led to a broken bone and very scary crashes.
  • College Culture Shock
    • Moving to LA immediately after the 1994 earthquake when UCLA looked like “Beirut
    • Not finding the United States to be as multi-cultural as her home in Mississauga, near Toronto, Canada.
    • Getting booed in a college meet.
    • Her opinion of current college difficulty compared to her era in the 90’s and how the loss of compulsories effect the current skill level of incoming elite gymnasts.
  • Being Different
    • Her dance foundation and wanting to be like her famous choreographer sister, Anastasia (Stacy) Umeh
    • Feeling out of place in school and in her upper middle-class gym
    • Being bullied–being chased home from elementary school by rock-throwing girls
    • Gymnastics always being the happy, safe place.
  • Elite Gymnastics
    • Scoring low domestically
    • Her advice for learning a painful skill, doing it
    • Fashion show, changing leotards for each event, mobster leos
    • Hair fashion when Stella didn’t have enough hair for a scrunchy, but the head coach wanted her in one (cue comedy)
    • “I never saw myself as a black athlete. I always come back to, this is what I love to do. I don’t really care what my color, my creed, my size, my shape is. This is where I am supposed to be.  If someone wants to sort of, discriminate against me or make things difficult for me because I’m different, then that’s their shit. I’m still going to go out and do what I need to do.”
    • Dealing with the reputation of being difficult and non-conforming because she stood up for herself and her teammates. For example:
      • The time Stella asked a judge what rumors she has heard about her.
      • The time Stella told off a Canadian judge for giving the Canadians lower scores than the international judges from the window of a taxi, as she took Larissa Libby (née Lowing) to the emergency room!
  • Artistic Style
    • The story her coach, Alex Bard, loves to tell about the time she refused to demonstrate her dance chops!
    • Her unique style was “not revered in Canada,” but it was abroad because being different was an asset. “I was loved internationaly, because in the end of the day, it was just about what I was doing on the floor.”
  • The Barcelona Olympic Games  in 1992
    • She cried for 30 days after the games because of the emotional investment in the journey and how fast it came and went.
    • Parties, make-out sessions and how she snuck out of her room with the help of the Olympic wrestling team.
  • Transitioning out of sport for the first time at age 40
    • Never had an orthopedic surgery due to or during her gymnastics career.
    • Had her first surgery after 13 years as an acrobat with Cirque du Soliel.
    • Thought she wouldn’t be able to walk after college. Thought her body would be “decimated.”
  • Advice to her younger self, “Do it your way. Do it the way that feels right and intrinsic to you. Follow that passion. Dream huge and don’t let any thing or anyone, including yourself, stand in your way. Because if you believe in what you are doing and you are loving it, you can’t go wrong. Whether you place first or last, you can’t go wrong.”

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8 years ago

Love her!! Didn\’t see also make world finals on beam (92) and floor (93)?

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