The British sisters making gymnastics history - WSMV News 4

Prepare for Downie domination: The British sisters making gymnastics history

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Things could not be going worse for Becky Downie. She thought about quitting gymnastics, the sport that she loved. She wondered why she was working so hard on routines that the world might never see. It was the kind of heartache that only something small, soft and fuzzy can heal.

Like a kitten named Rio. And, maybe, the hope that four years later, she could make Olympic history with her sister by her side.

Becky Downie was 16 years old at the Beijing Olympics, one of the youngest members of Great Britain’s women’s gymnastics team. She was awed by the Olympic Village and tried to take in every moment—but, she remembers, “the competition went so quickly, we kind of all wished we could have done it again.”

The British women didn’t qualify to the team final, but Becky got a second chance to compete in the all-around, where she finished 12th. “I don’t think I could have done much better than I did at that time,” she said.

She made the world championship teams in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and with Becky’s stellar uneven bars and beam routines in their arsenal, Team GB started climbing up the ranks. The London Olympics were in the sight—until Becky ruptured her Achilles in January 2011, the day after her 19th birthday.

 “It was definitely a shock to the system,” Becky said, but she kept her confidence.

"I'd never not made a team until that point. And it was an Olympic team, and I didn't really have a doubt that I would get there."

Becky Downie on the 2012 London Olympics

But when the British women’s gymnastics team for the 2012 Olympics was announced, Becky was assigned the role of reserve athlete—a non-competing alternate who would train alongside the team leading up to the Games, but watch the actual Olympic competition from the stands.

“When I was a reserve, in some ways I understood why,” she said, “but at the same time it was really, really difficult and I didn’t know if I wanted to carry on.”

It was the grueling pre-Olympic training camps that nearly pushed Becky to the breaking point.

“We had to go down and train alongside the team, which was really difficult,” Becky said. “Because in some ways you do your routines, you’re really proud that you’re on reserve. But on the other hand, you’re disappointed because you’re like ‘No one is going to see these.’ It was really kind of a strange position for me to be in.”

Her tight-knit family—mother Helen and her four siblings—noticed that Becky needed something to bring back her smile. 

Becky’s sister Ellie, 12 years old at the time and a gymnast on the rise, admits, “I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was” for Becky to be left off the team. “I know now how gutting it must have been for her.”

But the Downies did know that no matter how disappointed Becky was that summer, she wasn’t ready to call it quits.

“I came home from the camps one week,” Becky said, “and they told me to come into my lounge area and told me to sit down and close my eyes and they just dropped the little kitten into my arms. And we called him Rio.”

Ellie knew it was the perfect name. “We called it Rio just as motivation to keep going and not to give up, because we knew she still had more left in her. I think it was my mum’s idea, I don’t know, it was just a really cute idea I know I would have loved it, I know she did.”

It a little bit of time away from the gym to convince Becky to recommit to gymnastics.

“I had a holiday with my friends, and then went on holiday again with my family and I missed it," she said.

"I've always loved the sport and that was when I kind of knew that I wasn't done yet."

Becky Downie

And now she had a partner in her Olympic goal: Ellie.

The two have trained together for nearly all of Ellie’s life: she followed Becky into the gym when she was around 3 years old and says her first gymnastics memories are of seeing her older sister in training.

Ellie was 8 when she watched from home as Becky competed in the Olympics. “I didn’t realize how much of a big deal it was… so I just knew that she was competing and we were going to watch her on TV and see how she did and we’d be supporting her.”

Two years after the London Olympics, Ellie got her own Olympic moment when she was selected to compete at the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China. She dominated, winning medals in nearly every event: bronze in the all-around, on floor exercise and balance beam, and silver on vault. She was still a junior gymnast, competing only against athletes 15 or younger, but she was already a serious contender for the 2016 Rio Olympic team.


2014 was a golden year for Becky, too—she became the European champion on uneven bars, just the second ever British woman to win that title. 

Then in 2015, Ellie turned 16 years old and joined the senior ranks. Becky and Ellie, separated by 7 years, could finally compete alongside and against each other—which sometimes got a little confusing.

Ellie and Becky are the first to admit that they look like twins. They get mistaken for each other “literally all the time,” Becky said. “Ellie is the younger one, but she’s taller than me, and everyone just assumes that because she’s taller she’s the older one, so they immediately go to her as Becky.”

“It’s quite funny,” Ellie added, “because our age difference is so big, but people think that I’m the older one.”


But on the competition floor, they’re very different gymnasts. They fit the two stereotypes of gymnastics almost to a T.

Becky is the graceful gymnast—as Ellie described her, “She’s just more flexible and kind of like a more elegant gymnast than me.” Becky competes with maturity, both being a leader to her teammates and maintaining her own concentration. “She’s very good at staying focused in competition,” Ellie said.

Then Ellie has “got huge amounts of power,” Becky said. “ I’ve always been relatively powerful as a gymnast but Ellie’s power is kind of next level. And she just finds the jumping skills naturally so easy, so even on a tired day she can still tumble like a demon because it’s still so easy.”

And in competition, Ellie prefers to “chat with people and keep the atmosphere light,” she said.

More practically, their strengths and weaknesses complement each other in team competitions. Becky can put up big scores on uneven bars and beam, while Ellie is one of Britain’s best vaulters and shines on floor.

The “Double Downies,” as they were nicknamed by fans, were both named to the team for the 2015 World Championship, which were held in Glasgow, Scotland. With four other top-notch gymnasts on the team—Claudia Fragapane, Kelly Simm, Amy Tinkler and Ruby Harrold—they believed they had a shot at making history.

“We knew that it was possible” to win a team medal, Becky said, something that British women had never done before. “ I definitely knew it was possible if the team had a good day. We thought if we had a mistake it wouldn’t be possible. So as soon as we had a mistake on the first event [Ellie fell off the uneven bars], it kind of deflated us a little.

"But equally," Becky continued, "in a team situation I think GB’s fight is what makes us so strong. And we could bounce back after bars, and after beam and after floor and vault, were our stronger events. And after that point I was done so it was just about cheering on the team, making sure they put their heart and soul into every performance they had left, and I think everyone just genuinely did the best that they could at the time and it paid off.”

The gymnasts erupted into tears when the final score came in and they realized they had won a team bronze medal—both Becky and Ellie say Harrold was crying the hardest, “then I was a close second,” Ellie said. “Ruby was crying for ages afterwards, I started to calm down a little bit and then she’d start thinking about and start crying again.”

After the tears dried, all eyes were on Rio. The Downies traveled to Brazil with the rest of the British national team in early 2016 for a training trip. They toured the arena and venues (wearing hard hats since it wasn’t quite finished), visited the Christ the Redeemer statue and the beach, and even went to a barbeque hosted by the Brazilian gymnasts.


Finally, in mid-July, the British Olympic team was announced and it became official: the Double Downies had done it. After the disappointment of 2012, Becky would become a two-time Olympian at age 24, and her 17-year-old sister would be right by her side.

"It’s really nice to have my sister on my side when we compete," Ellie said. "I feel like it makes you a little bit calmer, because it’s like having a really, really best friend on your team."

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