15-year-old Helena Bonilla of Spain is set to make her senior debut this weekend at the friendly meet in Belgium, and hopes to make it to the European Championships later this spring.
Originally from the United States, Helena moved to Spain when she was nine, and had to quickly adjust to a new country, language, school…and of course, gym. But she found herself fitting in perfectly in her new setting, and began excelling in the sport, reaching the national level and now competing as one of the country’s top gymnasts.
Limited first by a lack of Spanish citizenship, and then by an elbow fracture once the citizenship was finally granted last year, Helena came onto the scene as a late prospect, competing internationally for the first time at the team challenge in Flanders last May and then returning to Belgium in November for Top Gym, where she placed seventh all-around. Over the holidays, she spent a few weeks in the U.S., and even got to train with Simone Biles at World Champions Centre in Houston, an awesome opportunity and a big inspiration going into her first year as a senior competitor in 2016.
We talked to Helena as she prepared to return to Belgium for the third time this weekend, learning about her experiences with moving to Spain, becoming part of the national team, and her plans for the future.
Helena’s bars at a control competition last week.
What was it like moving from the United States to Spain, both in terms of gymnastics and normal life? Was it difficult to get used to all of the changes at once?
The most challenging thing about moving to Spain was, obviously, the language. Gymnastics has its own vocabulary, too, so that added to the difficulty! Of course, I spent so much time in the gym that I learned Spanish quicker than I might have if I had gone to school only. Life in general was interesting, though, because we lived in a nice town at the beginning, and we tried to enjoy all the fun things about Spain, like tapas, taking long walks, and sightseeing.
How did you decide on a gym in Spain? About what level were you when you moved? What was it like adjusting to a different system than the J.O. levels system in the U.S.? Can you tell us a little about how the Spanish system works?
When we first moved to Spain, we lived in a small town which was over an hour outside of Madrid. There were only two gyms on that side of Madrid, so I tried both of them, and unfortunately, I knew immediately that one of them wasn’t a good fit. So we chose the other one. They were very welcoming and patient with me, especially because the skills progression is different there. They were doing some harder elements which I hadn’t learned yet, and so I had to catch up on some things, but I was ahead of them on other things. I was nine years old and a level seven when we moved.
Later we moved to a suburb of Madrid, and we actually chose the place where we would live based on the gym. The one where I had been going before that was located in a really expensive area, and so we found another gym in a more affordable place and moved there. It was the first time I had ever lived close to a gym, and that was really nice! I could even walk there! Now, of course, I don’t train there anymore, but we are only 20 minutes away from the national training center, so it is okay.
The main difference between the Spanish and U.S. systems is that in Spain, the system is government sponsored, while in the U.S. it is private. This means that there aren’t as many resources to dedicate to training girls who don’t show great promise. The levels, then, are by age and skill together. In Spain, if you aren’t doing the right skills at the right age, then you aren’t able to stay on track for advanced training and competition.
When did you realize you wanted to try elite gymnastics? Was that in your mind while you were still training in the U.S. or did it come about later?
I’ve always wanted to try elite gymnastics. From the time I started at four years old I was obsessed with videos of Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson and wanted to be like them.
How old were you when you started training and competing at the national level? Was there anyone at your gym in Spain that had been through that experience that could guide you or was it brand new for everyone?
There’s a Spanish Championships every year where everyone who has met the criteria for their level are allowed to compete. This even goes for six-year-olds! So, of course, the first year I competed at the national championships. Unfortunately, because of the rules, and because I wasn’t a Spanish citizen, I wasn’t allowed to earn any medals. My teammates’ parents were always so supportive, though, and they would always go out and buy a special trophy for me when I would place in any event. One year I did get a special mention award, but, even up until now, I haven’t won an official medal, because the year I finally got citizenship I was injured and couldn’t compete. The national championships did put me in front of the national team coaches early, though, and they were able to see me and decide that they were interested in me.
What is it like being at the national level in Spain? Do you train often with everyone on the national team?
Being on the national level is very different from how it is in the U.S., because once you reach that level, you leave your old gym (and coach!) and train exclusively at the national team training center. I started training with the national team coaches about three years ago, but in partnership with my local coach and club. Little by little, I was kind of absorbed fully into the program and then made the transition to the national team center. It was hard for me at first, because I really loved my old coach and had to adjust to a new way of doing things, but now I’m used to it.
Homeschooling is illegal in Spain, so many athletes from lots of various sports go to a special high school which is attached to the Olympic athletic training center in downtown Madrid. I just started there this year as a freshman, and it allows me to train twice a day and go to school (and even eat lunch with) the national team every day. They are my school friends and my teammates. There are a few members of the national team who train in other parts of Spain, so I don’t get to see them very often, but there are gatherings every so often in Madrid, so we all know each other. Going to school there and training twice a day means I leave my house at 7:15 a.m. and don’t get home until 9:30 p.m. during the week.
After competing internationally for the first time last year at the Flanders International Team Challenge, you fractured your elbow. Was it difficult to come back from that or did it derail your training at all? How is it feeling now?
For a long time we thought the elbow fracture was just tendonitis, and so I continued training on it. But after resting it for two weeks and still having pain we did an MRI and saw the fracture. After that, I started going to the national team orthopedist, who was fantastic. He was able to design a training schedule and rehabilitation exercises that helped me to recover quickly and still stay in shape. It is perfectly fine now.
You’ll return to Belgium for your third international meet there this weekend to make your senior debut. What goal do you have for yourself in Mouscron?
As always, I mostly just want to do my best and represent well what I can do. Of course, it would be great to use this to help earn a spot on the team for the European Championships, but I also just want to have fun.
Helena’s beam at the control competition this month
With NCAA possibly in your future, have you spoken to other gymnasts who have competed for Spain, like Silvia Colussi-Pelaez (currently at Oregon State)? Are there any teams you currently enjoy watching compete or are rooting for?
Yes! I know Silvia! We haven’t talked about NCAA, because it wasn’t really on my radar when she was training and competing here with us, but I admire her gymnastics and her style. Right now, I’m focused on Penn State. One of my former teammates from Youngstown, Ohio – Jessica Jones – is a gymnast there. I visited when I was about nine years old for a gymnastics showcase. I remember being fascinated by the campus and wanting very much to go there. It’s hard for me, though, to closely follow college gymnastics, because it doesn’t come on our television here. I could probably follow it more online, but I don’t really have that much time (or my own computer!).
Who has been your biggest inspiration in the sport?
Nastia and Shawn!
What do you enjoy most about gymnastics?
Being able to do a lot of things that other people can’t.
Outside of gymnastics, what are some of your favorite ways to relax or have fun?
One of the cool things about living in Spain is that you can walk almost everywhere. So I love walking to the local mall and going shopping! Also, by metro I can get to the main shopping strip in Madrid, called Gran Via, where I can meet my teammates and hang out. I also like to draw and watch makeup and cooking videos!
Thanks, Helena, and best of luck in Belgium this weekend! Check out more videos of Helena’s gymnastics on her YouTube channel.
Article by Lauren Hopkins