Lismore gymnast lives Olympic dream

AS a five-year-old tottering around the gym as her big sister trained, Naazmi Johnston caught the eye of elite coach Edith Peluso.

Born in Lismore, Johnston moved to Sydney with parents Glenn and Amy so older sister Shaneez could pursue specialist rhythmic gymnastics coaching at the NSW high performance centre.

It was there, off the edge of the mats, that Edith caught her first glimpse of the future Olympian and Australian champion.

“She started playing as a youngster in the gym while her older sister was competing,” Peluso said.

“She was very bright and playful and very social, she liked to talk and chat.”

And when Johnston started training three years later, Peluso started to believe.

“Yes I thought she could do it (become Australia's best),” she said.

“When she first started she had the flexibility, she just had the potential.

“It was whether she had the tenacity to hang in there, that was another thing.”

Eleven years later, some things haven't changed.

Fresh off winning the Australian Rhythmic Gymnastics champions at the weekend, the 19-year-old was happy to chat and was chirpy but relaxed as she talked of her Beijing ambitions.

“It's pretty exciting, something I'll never forget ... but it (the Olympics) wasn't always the goal. Not really,” she said.

“I guess I do it because I enjoy it. Not so much for the results, just because I like it.”

If she sounds ambivalent about what for many is the opportunity of a lifetime, it's because she's already competed in 15 different countries.

Under the guidance of Peluso and her daughter Gina Peluso, Johnston has learned that ceremonies, medals and public opinion are not as important as constant progress.

“I just want to do four perfect routines with no drops and no mistakes,” she said.

“There is always space to improve and make up new skills and try new things.”

It is this focus, coupled with her natural ability and dedication to a gruelling training schedule while studying and working two jobs that makes Johnston one of the sport's most promising talents.

Peluso, who has worked with both of Australia's previous two Olympians, said Johnston was our best.

“She is the best,” she said.

“You see (her) improving year by year.

“She's not a flash in the pan - just steady improvement and she's more consistent and lasting ... more potential.

“Naazmi has been a slow developer, but she's just blossoming beautifully as a gymnast”.

There are no expectations that Johnston will finish among the top 20 in Beijing with Ukraine and Russian athletes likely to dominate, but Peluso is confident she will soon rank among the best in the world.

“For this competition, I'd just like to see her do her best,” Peluso said.

“She will not come up into the top rankings at all, but it will give her a good step towards the future.

“We're looking for gold medals at the (2010) Commonwealth Games.

“That's our goal but she'll never tell you that.

“It's wonderful; she's got further to go in terms of ranking and skills.”

Johnston moved away from her family in 2005 to continue her training with the Pelusos at Moreton Bay College.

She finished 64th at the World Championships in Greece earlier this year.

Amy and Glenn still own a house in Lismore and visit the region whenever they travel to Brisbane to see Naazmi.

She is set to fly to Beijing on August 16.

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