By Brian Hayhurst
“Queen of gymnastics in South Africa has passed away.”
This was the heart-wrenching message Graham Fidler posted on social media. He was referring to his sister Janet Mitchell, who was a leading light in the development and growth of gymnastics in Huddersfield.
Janet (nee Fidler) sadly died on June 27 after a short illness. She died peacefully at home with family around her in South Africa.
In Britain Janet was a leading coach, a joint author of a popular book and became the national coach of South Africa, taking many gymnasts to world and Olympic Games. Eventually Janet was the co-owner of a leading specialist gym in South Africa.
Janet came to live and work in Huddersfield from Lancashire in the mid-1960s with mum Ruth, dad Ken (who was on the British Gymnasts Board of Control and a senior judge) and brother Graham.
Their interest in gymnastics was already well known and they approached Huddersfield Gym Club which had grown in a tiny school hall – Crow Lane Youth Club in Milnsbridge.
The club was initially founded in the 1950s for boys by Stan Booth producing many local and national champions, plus an Olympian in gymnastics.
With the extraordinary performance by Olga Korbut at the 1972 Olympics, girls’ gymnastics exploded.
This was a busy time for Janet who had taken over the girls’ side. Flooded with gymnasts the club moved to a large sports hall in Paddock in 1975, where the girls’ club still remains.
Janet and her co-author’s book, written in 1976, was very popular and featured many of the girls she took to the very top in regional and national competitions including Denise Jones, Cathy Williams (Olympians) and also Kay Dyson, Belinda Moorhouse, Sue Crombie and Michelle Robb.
These were just a few of the dozens of great performers she nurtured and prepared for competitions.
It was a tremendous achievement for Janet to be invited to become South Africa’s national gymnastics coach, based in Johannesburg.
She accepted the invitation, and the entire family – including husband Nigel and daughter Kelly – uprooted and moved when Janet took up the post in 1979.
She immediately made her mark and became highly respected amid the current coaching staff and senior gymnasts in the country using her natural but firm style to produce strong teams for the World, Olympic and Commonwealth games.
The family has already had many messages of sympathy and condolence from around the world and Janet has been fondly remembered by dozens of former gymnasts in Britain, fellow UK coaches and others who had the pleasure of knowing this dynamic and inspirational lady who changed the lives of hundreds of young people she worked with.
Janet eventually left her South Africa national coaching role to go into business and open her own gym – ‘The Kids Gym.’ This was Janet’s genuine desire to help under-privileged young people to better themselves through the sport she loved – gymnastics.
Janet who would have been 69 this December, is survived by mother Ruth, brother Graham, daughter Kelly, son Daley and grandchildren Levi, Riley and Callum.
We offer our sincere condolences to her family at this time.