Ernestine Russell was Canada’s first female Olympic gymnast and the first woman inducted into the Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame. At her peak, Russell was the single finest woman competing in gymnastics in the Western Hemisphere.
Russell, born in Windsor on June 10, 1938, trained at the Windsor Gymnastics Club under Bernard Newman. She won her first international meet at the tender age of 12.
Russel won an incredible six consecutive All-Around Canadian Championship golds between 1954 and ’59. She also added United States All-Around Championship titles in 1955, ’58, and ’59.
The Amateur Athletic Union of Canada named Russell its Most Outstanding Woman Athlete in 1953 and ’54. In the three years that followed, Russell took home a natural hat trick of Velma Springstead Trophies, which named her as Canada’s Woman Athlete of the Year. This feat had never before been accomplished.
All of this happened before her 19th birthday.
In 1959, Russell enjoyed the most successful year of her gymnastics career. At the Pan-American Games in Chicago, she won all four events in which she competed, plus the Women’s All-Around title. Russell was the first woman to win five gold medals at the Games, and the first Canadian athlete of any gender to win five gold medals in any international competition.
Russell competed in the 1956 and ’60 Olympic Games, in Melbourne and Rome respectively. In between Olympics, she participated the 1958 World Games.
Russell eventually attended Michigan State University and transitioned into a successful coaching career in American collegiate athletics. Under her married name, Ernestine Weaver, she garnered acclaim as an author, judge, and coach.
In 1970, having graduated from university, Russell accepted a faculty position at Clarion State College in Pennsylvania. Under Russell’s guidance, the Clarion women’s gymnastics team strung together seven undefeated seasons (58-0 in total) in its “small college” division. It also won four consecutive Division I national titles between 1976 and ’79. In 1977, Russell won a national coaching award and was appointed as head coach for the United States women’s gym team at the World University Games.
On the international stage, Russell also managed the USA team at the 1974 World Games and coached USA representative teams at international meets with Russia (’71), Japan (’72), and France (’73). She has served on the USA Olympic Committee and the United State Gymnastics Federation Technical Committee.
On the back of her early coaching success, Russell earned a coaching position at the University of Florida, where her husband, Jim Weaver, coached football. With the Gators, Russell won the NCAA National Title in 1982, plus five SEC championships and four regional titles. She was named SEC Coach of the Year in 1989.
Russell was also an accomplished judge. She held the Brevet ranking, the highest international judging certificate in her sport, and was the alternate American judge at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. She represented the USA as a judge at the 1979 Tokyo World Cup.
In addition to the WECSHOF, of which she was an original inductee, Russell has been admitted to the Canadian Amateur Athletic Hall of Fame (inducted in 1960), the Michigan State University Sports Hall of Fame (’92), the Clarion State Hall of Fame (’89), and the U.S. Gymnastics Federation Helms Hall of Fame (’86).