Jan. 10, 2014
All In The Family
Senior gymnast Dusti Russell carries on her family’s tradition of excelling in collegiate gymnastics.
Article was published in the January 2014 edition of the Ski-U-Mah Magazine
When it comes to families that are involved in the sport of gymnastics, it’s hard to imagine many with more combined talent than the one Dusti Russell comes from.
Russell, a senior captain for Minnesota’s nationally-ranked women’s gymnastics program, is the youngest of four children in a family where all six members have excelled in gymnastics.
Dusti’s parents, Debbie and Dave, both were star gymnasts at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Her oldest sister, Rehana (28), competed for the Golden Gophers during 2005-07. Dusti’s sister, Randi Jo (26), was a member of the gymnastics team at the University of Arizona, and her brother, Cody (24), currently works as a professional acrobat and entertainer in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Then, of course, there’s Dusti (21). Now entering her final season for head coach Meg Stephenson’s Golden Gophers, Dusti’s been to the past two NCAA Championships -- as an individual in the all-around two years ago, and last year as a member of the team that tied for the Big Ten regular season title and finished eighth in the nation, Minnesota’s best-ever result at nationals.
As the youngest member of her family, Dusti has literally grown up around the sport she loves.
“I can remember when Dusti was about six months old, and her sisters would play with her and pretend they were her coaches,” Debbie said. “They would stretch her out by making her do all the stretches they did in their gymnastics classes. I’d tell them, ‘If she starts crying, you have to stop.’”
“Well, from what my sisters have told me, my crying didn’t stop them,” Dusti said with a laugh.
Dusti said that some of her earliest childhood memories are of her family playing in their yard. But, unlike many families, the Russells’ backyard games weren’t simply tag or hide-and-seek.
“I think my first gymnastics memories are at our house, and either my dad spotting us on tricks in our yard, or we used to have family hand-stand contests,” Dusti said. “I remember, before I started going to the gym as much as my siblings did, they would teach me a skill before they went to practice. When they’d come back, I would have practiced it so much that I’d have it perfected. I just remember doing tricks around our kitchen, living room or yard.”
Dusti formally began gymnastics at the age of two, when Debbie enrolled her in a class for tots that she was teaching.
As former collegiate gymnasts, Debbie and Dave began coaching at Oshkosh Gymnastics Center shortly after graduating from UWO. All four Russell children trained and learned the sport at Oshkosh Gymnastics, where they were also coached by the same coaches who had trained Debbie and Dave.
As an All-American on balance beam, Debbie helped Wisconsin-Oshkosh win a national championship in 1980. Dave led UW-Oshkosh to four national titles, and he captured three individual national championships on parallel bars. A five-time collegiate All-American, Dave is a member of UW-Oshkosh’s Hall of Fame and was named to the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s “Team of the Century” in 2012.
“From what people have told me, they were both very good gymnasts,” Dusti said. “I’ve never been able to see footage of them, but I’ve heard that they were phenomenal.”
Dusti recalls a time when a friend of hers was wearing a Wisconsin-Oshkosh gymnastics shirt at an airport, and a stranger walked up to her and asked her if she had competed there. Her friend explained that she hadn’t, but that her friend’s mom (Debbie) had. As it turns out, the stranger had been a collegiate gymnast who competed against UWO during the time Debbie was on the team, and she still remembered Debbie’s beam routine a couple decades later.
“I told my mom about that, and she didn’t make it seem like such a big deal,” Dusti said. “But, to me, it’s just very cool that someone had remembered her routine. She must have been amazing.”
Dusti affectionately looks up to all of her siblings, and she credits each of them for having contributed in different ways to her success as a gymnast.
“Rehana was always so compassionate with me,” Dusti said. “She always treated me like I was her little baby and she has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met, so I’ve always looked up to her for that. I’ve always wanted to be like her in the way that she treats others.”
Rehana, who now teaches pre-kindergarten students in Oshkosh, was seven years old when Dusti was born and Debbie thinks the age difference between her oldest and youngest daughters played a role in their close relationship. Rehana agrees.
“Being the oldest, I always looked out for everyone, but since I was seven when Dusti was born, I was really well-aware that she was my little sister,” Rehana said. “I would always defend her, no matter what, and I used to call her ‘my cutie.’”
“Rehana has this protective instinct in her that I love,” Dusti said. “She’s the kindest person in the world, but if someone messes with her younger siblings, she’s not timid about standing up for us.”
Dusti credits Randi Jo for making her mentally tough. She said that Randi Jo used to get after her for being “sensitive” and that the first time Dusti made the decision to fight back, Randi Jo encouraged her and said, “Yeah, fight back!”
“Randi had this spunkiness and drive that made her so awesome,” Dusti said. “She had a fire inside her and no one could tell her that she wasn’t going to be able to do something. She’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. She tore her ACL at Arizona and wound up doing a redshirt fifth year, which is so hard in gymnastics. And, as a fifth-year senior, she competed in the all-around, which is amazing.”
Unlike Rehana and Dusti, who both confess to being “homebodies,” Randi Jo is the one sister who has never been afraid to venture far from the nest. She went to school in Arizona, where she majored in Spanish and political science, and she currently lives in Spain.
Cody is the other adventurous soul in the family, and the one Dusti calls the most courageous, and also the craziest as far as gymnastics go. With the support of his family, Cody made a video of his acrobatic skills shortly after he graduated from high school, sending it out to various shows across the country.
When Debbie and Dave heard about a new show that was starting in Myrtle Beach, they encouraged Cody to send his video, and it worked. He auditioned and was hired as a performer in Pirate’s Voyage Dinner Attraction, where he regularly displays his gymnastics skills in tramp wall and on the Russian Swing. He also recently spent six months performing in Japan.
“Cody is really good at tramp wall, where there are two trampolines with a wall in between, and he flips over it and onto it,” Dusti said. “He’s insane (in a good way). I’d say he’s definitely the most courageous, and the craziest, among my family when it comes to gymnastics.”
Rehana feels the same about her younger brother.
“Cody’s body awareness when he’s in the air is remarkable,” she said. “He does amazing flips and twists, yet he always seems to know exactly where he is in the air and how to land safely.”
Asked whether she thinks Cody’s like a cat, which will almost always land on its feet, Rehana said, “Yeah, that’s a pretty good analogy.”
Dusti has a very close bond with Cody, who has always been protective of his only younger sister.
“Cody is probably the best brother in the world,” Dusti said. “He’s always looked out for me and I feel very blessed to be the only one in our family with a big brother. There are lots of stories from when we were younger where I’d break something or do something to get in trouble, and Cody would take the blame for it.”
Actually, it wasn’t just Cody who watched out for his little sister. In the Russell family, being the youngest had its advantages. Dusti’s siblings would always keep her out of trouble by taking the blame for things she had done. Rehana said that her youngest sister once colored their kitchen walls with a neon-pink Crayon, and they all worked to keep Debbie out of the room long enough for them to clean up the mess.
The fact that Rehana decided to attend Minnesota, where she competed for three seasons with the Gophers, had a big impact on Dusti’s decision to choose Minnesota, as well. Dusti considered following Randi Jo to Arizona, as well as some other Big Ten programs, but that homebody thing that she shares with Rehana kept her close to home.
Dusti said she always admired Rehana for becoming a Division I gymnast, and for being the first one to venture out from the family. Rehana was a bars specialist for the Gophers, and Dusti said, “I remember coming to watch her compete for the Gophers and she had the most gorgeous bars routine. I knew that, if she picked Minnesota, that’s where I’d want to go, too.”
After Dusti left for college in 2010, Debbie and Dave made the decision to move on from coaching at Oshkosh Gymnastics Center. Debbie renewed her license to allow her to teach physical education classes, while Dave continued his work as a roofer.
But, even though she enjoyed teaching physical education classes, Debbie said she and Dave missed being able to work with kids in gymnastics. So, in 2012, Debbie and Dave took a risk and invested some of their savings to open a small gym in Stevens Point, Wis.
Russell Gymnastics opened its doors that fall in a small warehouse space, with 60 kids signed up for the initial classes. Dave continued to work as a roofer during the week, while coaching at the gym on the weekends. But the risk has paid off and the business has thrived, recently moving into a space that’s more than twice the square footage of the original facility, and increasing enrollment to more than 250.
“It’s such a healthy environment and the kids just love being there,” Dusti said. “When I help out in the summer, the girls get so excited. It’s so amazing to see young gymnasts so passionate and driven to learn.”
Dusti’s last season as a collegiate gymnast begins in January, and she has her sights set high for her final season with the Gophers. Minnesota will serve as a host site for the NCAA Regionals on April 5 and Dusti believes anything less than another trip to the 2014 NCAA Championships for the Gophers will be disappointing.
“Every one of us who were able to travel to Los Angeles for nationals last year know what it takes to get there, and we all have the fire inside to get back there this year,” she said. “We’ve been working so hard to prepare for this season, and it’s just a blessing that we’ll be able to host regionals at the Sports Pavilion.”
Dusti and her teammates are like a family. But, with this “family,” she’s the big sister, and she watches over and protects all of her younger “sisters.”
As a team captain for the Gophers, Dusti will utilize what she learned from her own family – how to be a champion, like her parents; how to be compassionate, like Rehana; how to be driven and strong, like Randi Jo; and how to persevere and find success no matter the circumstances, like Cody.
When her career wraps up, Minnesota’s loyal fans hope she’ll walk away from collegiate gymnastics as the latest success from a very talented family, with another championship ring on her finger.
Michael Molde is a freelance writer for Gopher Athletics.