- Lifestyle & Sports
- 02 Aug 16
As she swaps the classroom for the world’s biggest sports stage, Ellis O’Reilly reflects on her journey to this point – and becoming the first female gymnast to compete for Ireland in the Olympics.
Life for a teenager can be tough at the best of times, but Ellis O’Reilly has been taking things to new extremes. Preparations for the London-based 18 year-old’s first Olympic Games have coincided with the stark reality of finishing her A-Levels; in fact, when Hot Press comes calling, Ellis has been summoned to school to put the finishing touches to her coursework.
”It’s been hard,” she shrugs, in an early contender for understatement of the summer. “I’ve been lucky that all my A-Levels were based on course work, rather than exams. It means that if I’m in training camp, I can take my laptop with me. I don’t think I’d have been able to do it otherwise. But now that I’m finished with them, I can concentrate completely on training – it’s taken a lot of the pressure off.”
The pressure on her rather muscular shoulders is now all about Rio, where she will become the first female gymnast to ever represent Ireland in the Olympics. Born and raised in London, she qualifies for Ireland through her Antrim-born grandfather Leo. While training in the UK meant there were plenty of role models to follow, she’s well aware that she will now be the poster-girl for thousands of youngsters in this country.
”When I was younger, it was having gymnasts to look up to that encourages you to keep training and pushing yourself a little more, to try to make it to competing against the best in the world. Beth Tweddle was always a hero of mine. I don’t know why there’s never been an Irish competitor before - it was mentioned, but I tried not to think about it, because I didn’t want to let anybody down.”
That fear was well and truly dispelled when she romped through a test event last April, to secure her spot at the Games. At that qualifying event, she also got a sneak peek of the set-up in Rio de Janeiro - and, contrary to sensationalist headlines, she was impressed with what she found.
”It was absolutely amazing,” she gushes. “I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but it was a lot better than I thought it was going to be. Now, my competition was delayed by 45 minutes because of a power cut - but I’m sure that it’ll be perfect next month.”
Alongside her on that trip, fellow competitor Kieran Behan was a constant source of support. Having made it to London four years ago, our other elite gymnast knows all about what being at the Olympics means. “He’s been fantastic,” Ellis says. “He’s got the experience of 2012, and he’s always incredibly supportive. He’s told me what it’s going to be like, and he helps me stay focused and keep my nerves under control.”
Well, when you’re back-flipping along a six-inch-wide beam, you need to stay pretty cool. “I think all gymnasts dread the beam,” she confesses. “One fall there can be really costly. I do like all four pieces, but I’m probably happiest on the vault.” Exactly what she’ll do in the vault remains a mystery. Behind the closed doors of her training camp, work is being done to upgrade her routines for Brazil. One thing’s for sure: this writer’s idea of doing a floor exercise to the soundtrack of an Irish jig is a non-runner.
"That would have been good – I’ll bear it in mind in future,” she laughs (diplomatically, we fear). “My coach, along with my choreographer, picks out music, and then we all sit down and figure out what would suit. It’s a hard choice to make, so it helps when we can make the call between us.”
If Ellis had her way, it’d be Rihanna blasting from the speakers - she professes to being a big fan of R&B. Then again, she doesn’t have much time to check out new music. Nor, for that matter, to hit the cinema, binge on Netflix, or do any of the myriad, indulgent things normal 18-year-olds do. ”My friends are really understanding,” she smiles. “When they’re going out and socialising, I have to go training, but they’re always very supportive. I’ve been doing this since I was six: school, followed by gym, is what my life has been.”
A supportive family is equally important - and in this regard, Ellis has it made. “My mum was a competitive swimmer, and coached swimming too,” she explains, “so she knows how sport works and how dedicated you need to be. My older sister Jenna is a boxer who’s won five national championships, and both my younger brothers box as well. We’re a pretty competitive family - even if it’s a game of Monopoly, we’re all pretty driven to win.” Her natural fire will take her a long way - but there’s extra motivation on this occasion, following the unfortunate death of her grandfather in June. ”It encouraged me to train even harder, so that when I compete, I can make him even more proud.” Having to slug it out with the dominant figures of Shang Chunsong and the all-conquering Simone Biles means that Ellis’ hopes of a medal are slim; rather than dreaming of a medal, her ambition is for a clean competition - i.e., landing her routines and staying on that dastardly beam.
There’s one way, though, in which she’s sure to tower over the rest. ”I’m 5’ 5’, so I seem really tall against them,” she laughs (gold-medal favourite Biles is a mere 4’ 9’). “I sometimes hit my heels on the uneven bars. My coach used to ask me to stop growing - like I could possibly do anything about it!” Coach Sam James has become something of an auxiliary mother – “my mum constantly reminds me I spend more time with Sam than at home” - and it seems likely to remain that way.
Because gymnasts’ careers tend to end early, HP has the odd experience of asking a teenager if she’s pondering retirement. The answer is a definitive ‘no’. ”I’d like to move on to Tokyo in 2020,” Ellis asserts. “As long as you stay injury-free and fit, you can go on a lot longer than before; I go to an osteopath every week to put me back together. As I get older, more natural strength will come into play, which will hopefully take me to a higher level. I can get the experience of this Olympics under my belt, start to mature, and start looking towards the future.”
School might be behind her - but the learning has only just begun.
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