Isabel van Achterberg: The Mother of Rhythmic Gymnastics in South Africa

Rhythmic Gymnastics will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in South Africa next year. For the many of the administrators, coaches, judges, gymnasts and parents that have been involved with the Sport over the years, it would seem like yesterday when it was first started in our Country.

Isabel van Achterberg, the driving force behind establishing Rhythmic Gymnastics in South Africa, shares a bit about herself and what it took to realise such an enormous goal almost 30 years ago.   


Q. Could you tell us a little bit more about your background?

A. I was the Chairperson of Rhythmic Gymnastics in South Africa since 1986 - this was when the Sport started in the Country. Prior to this, I lectured at Goudstad Teachers Training College in the Physical Education Department. Here I mainly taught Rhythmic Movement which included the handling of apparatus with music.


Q. How did you find out about Rhythmic Gymnastics and what attracted you to the Sport? 

A. When I was at school we had a Physical Education teacher who choreographed group items with hoops, clubs and balls. I will never forget when Gloria Landman (our new teacher) walked into the class. All the learners were instantly captivated by her. From that day I knew I wanted to be like her. 

Rhythmic Gymnastics only started developing world wide at the beginning of the Sixties.The technical requirements were very different from what we taught. At that stage we did not have Television! I saw it the first time in 1975 at the World Gymnaestrada in Berlin where I bought a video cassette and started teaching the students mainly ribbon and ball. We even had to make our own ribbon sticks!!


Q. Why did you think Rhythmic Gymnastics could be developed in South Africa?

A. Suzie Kirk tried to develop the Sport during the early Seventies. In those days Artistic Gymnastics was so popular and the result was that Rhythmic Gymnastics did not develop at all.

When I got married in 1985, Mr Hugo Olivier (former President of the South African Gymnastics Federation) asked me to start Rhythmic Gymnastics in South Africa. I thought it would be a good idea not to be too technical in the beginning phase. We South Africans are a nation that likes to dance so we created a programme which was not difficult but very enjoyable - something that everyone could do. The schools participated in groups and the individual work was very open. We gave the coaches music and four body elements as well as specific difficulties for each apparatus. It was incredibly hard work but we persevered.


Q. Could you tell us about the early days of Rhythmic Gymnastics in South Africa?

A. The early days were really very difficult. Maureen van Rooyen and I went all over the Country and conducted courses at Schools, Gymnastics Clubs and also Fitgym Clubs. Although I had the feeling during most of the courses that none of the people would become top coaches I knew we had to introduce the Sport to as many people as we could. The reaction, especially from the children, made it clear that the girls loved the Sport and could not wait to compete. 


Q. How far has Rhythmic Gymnastics come since you started it?

A. Rhythmic Gymnastics has developed into one of the most popular sports for girls in the Country. There are excellent programmes which develops a Rhythmic Gymnast from Beginner to National Level. Over the years we have developed many Coaches and Judges on all Levels. After attending the Nationals in Cape Town last year (2014) I was very impressed with the quality of the young gymnasts participating. Throughout the years we have mostly won the African Championships Team and Individual Competitions.


Individual African Champions

  • Michelle Cameron (4 times)
  • Belinda Potgieter
  • Stephanie Sandler
  • Odette Richard
  • Grace Legota
  • We are also proud to have had two Rhythmic Gymnasts represent South Africa at the Olympic Games - Stephanie Sandler at 2004 Athens Games and Odette Richard at 2008 Beijing Games.


Q. Do you have any advice to aspiring Gymnasts, Parents and Coaches?

A. Gymnast and Parents: Be patient. It takes a long time to reach the top. Do not think your chid has won the Olympics when she wins a gold medal at a Novice Level Competition. Parents must support their children responsibly and make sure they enjoy what they do.

Coaches: You are very important. If we do not have Coaches the Sport cannot survive.

Judges: Keep working hard because the Sport needs you. Keep on improving yourself by attending Courses and judge as much as you can.


Isabel is currently Second Vice President on the South African Gymnastics Federation  Board. 

Michelle Kleu
Michelle Kleu