Ellie Downie continues to rewrite gymnastics history with a plethora of gold medal-winning performances. Tomorrow she is in line to land a top national sports award. Will Moulton finds out why
It takes something remarkable for an athlete to be nominated for a prestigious annual award despite spending a large chunk of the year injured. But then Ellie Downie is no ordinary sportswoman: after all, she has a personal endorsement from no less a personage than Nadia Comaneci, the first gymnast to score a perfect ten at a major competition, to go alongside a growing collection of gold medals.
Downie had done enough by the end of April to be nominated as one of four athletes in line to be crowned the 2017 Sunday Times Young Sportswoman of the Year. And it was by becoming the first British gymnast to win all-round gold at a major championship that she caught to eye of Comaneci.
The five-time Olympic champion, spectating at the European Championships in her native Romania, was moved to comment: “Ellie is a very strong athlete and I am very impressed with her physicality.”
Remembering Comaneci’s words six months on, Downie says: “It was so cool to read what Nadia said about me. When I saw that she had given me such good comments I just thought, ‘Wow!’ I didn’t even know she was watching it.”
Comaneci’s critique also helped sustain Downie through subsequent difficult times. She was competing in the European Championships with a nagging ankle problem that, by August, would require surgery and force her to miss last month’s World Championships.
Quite what she would have achieved there is open to conjecture. But she was working up quite a head of steam in the early part of the year. At the competiton in Cluj, she also became the first British female gymnast to qualify for all four individual finals at a European Championships, taking home silvers on the vault and floor, and securing bronze on the uneven bars. And this was just weeks after she picked up three golds at the British Championships.
The Nottingham gymnast admits: “It was a pretty crazy period. I wasn’t expecting to come away from the Europeans with four medals or a title. I was emotional when I found out because you know the hard work you’ve put in has paid off. You’re doing it from being unfit after the Olympics, taking the time to get back to full fitness, and then getting achievement like that is just surreal.”
That level of success is nothing new, though. At the 2015 European Championships she became the first British female to win a medal in a major all-around final; later that year, at the World Championships, she helped Britain to a historic bronze, their first global team medal.
Having been on the international scene for a few years it can be easy to forget that Downie only turned 18 in July. However, she is having to get used to being seen by many as the face of British gymnastics. News that she was to miss the World Championships attracted plenty of national coverage, though the former Rushcliffe School student admits she still finds it unnerving to hear her name mentioned in the press.
“It’s really nice to be one of the top people in British gymnastics,” she said. “But I always find it strange, though, that at the British Championships everyone is there to see you, and you literally can’t go to Costa to get a drink without getting accosted. It’s so weird, but really nice at the same time.
“I think it’s because I’m young I don’t really expect people to look up to me that much. But to be a role model to those who are 13 or 14 is cool. I was quite surprised at the coverage my injury received. I remember I was in the car on my way home from the surgery and they announced it on Radio 1. I found it strange that people were that interested. It was weird!”
One of Downie’s role models when starting out was her sister Becky, seven years her senior and also a European, World and Commonwealth medallist. Now competing alongside each other, the younger Downie says that the two get on well, helped by the fact that they specialise in different disciplines meaning they are rarely battling for a spot in the squad.
The four-time Youth Olympic medallist explained: “Our strengths in gymnastics are different. She’s a bars and beam worker and I’m an all-arounder and a vaulter. We are never really fighting with each other for a space on a team so we get to do lots of things together.
“After training is the only time where we are different. Becky likes to come home and chat about gym whereas I like to come home and switch off from it. I think that’s about the only time that we clash. I’ve been in the gym for six or seven hours already and I just want to go home, switch off and spend time with my mum or see family, not talk about it.”
Downie is up against some strong opposition for the Sunday Times award with wheelchair racer Sammi Kinghorn, para-skiier Millie Knight and swimmer Freya Anderson all having produced stunning performances of their own this year.
She is relishing the opportunity to be part an important evening for women’s sport, with the awards ceremony being shown at primetime across a number of Sky channels.
Downie said: “It felt really nice for my achievements to be recognised, and to be in a strong field of really good young athletes is great. It will be really interesting to see who wins on the night.
“I think the evening as a whole is a massive occasion, getting women’s sport out there is key. A lot of people will watch the evening as it’s on Sky’s mainstream channels. I think it’s a really, really good thing for women’s sport.”
Sky Sports will exclusively show the 30th Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year Awards in association with Vitality, live from 8pm on Thursday, October 26 on Sky Sports Main Event, Sky Sports Action and Sky Sports Mix.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Will Moulton is a ‘Gold Standard’ NCTJ-qualified sports journalist and a First Class graduate from Durham University who aspires to one day commentate on international cricket and an Olympic Games. He is hugely passionate about a number of sports – including cricket, hockey, football and rugby – and also has two national cheerleading titles to his name. Will’s latest articles