After winning the bronze medal as a team on British soil at last year’s world championships, Team GB was under a lot of pressure to make the magic happen once again.
They had the big difficulty across all four events, they had the consistency the Russians lacked, and they had tons of experience between the five women, each of whom had not only competed at a major international meet, but all of whom had reached individual finals at one point or another.
Still, it wasn’t going to be easy. The team defeated the Russians in the three-up three-count qualifications at European Championships, once again taking advantage of Russia’s mistakes. While talented and fierce in their own right, the Brits weren’t quite matching the top teams in terms of overall difficulty or execution, but their secret weapon was the ability to come in as the underdogs and finish at the top.
But in the team finals at Euros, the British women had consistency issues of their own, while Russia missed only one routine. With a fall on bars and then multiple falls on beam, the Brits were still able to hold on to silver, but ultimately finished five points behind Russia that day. It was a tough loss, and showed that when the Russians were on their game, they weren’t going to be easy to beat.
The pressure stayed high, however, with fans hoping the team — featuring veteran 2008 Olympian Becky Downie alongside Ruby Harrold, Amy Tinkler, Claudia Fragapane, and Ellie Downie — would be able to carry over the historic worlds performance in 2015 over to Rio, where the women would be the first to win a team medal for their country. As Euros proved, it wasn’t going to be easy, but they’d done it before and knew they could pull it off again.
Qualifications unfortunately didn’t go as smoothly as they probably hoped. Becky Downie, the biggest medal contender for the team as the reigning European champion on bars, whacked her feet during her routine to miss the final by less than a tenth before falling on beam. They were able to drop her beam fall, but Fragapane also fell there and on bars, causing her to miss the all-around final by two tenths.
Then Ellie Downie, in the midst of an otherwise fantastic day, had an awkward landing on her 2½ and yet continued into the punch front, landing horrifyingly on her neck. She looked like she was going to try to continue but eventually stopped the routine, looking dazed before being taken off the floor to get checked out by the on-site medics. She heroically came back out onto the floor and vaulted one rotation later, performing a solid DTY to contribute a top vault score for Great Britain.
These dramas aside, Harrold had a good day, hitting bars and contributing a 13.633 on floor, where she was expected to be the dropped routine but they ended up counting her with Downie’s fall. And Tinkler had the best day of all, hitting the crap out of all three of her routines to finish with the high scores on vault, beam, and floor.
A decision that confused me going into the meet was the one made to keep Tinkler out of the all-around, favoring this year’s national champion Fragapane instead. With two bars specialists in Harrold and Becky Downie and then Ellie Downie taking a third bars spot as the gymnast with the best all-around potential and strongest bars among the remaining ladies, the Brits were in a predicament similar to that of the United States. Laurie Hernandez was clearly the stronger bar worker in that situation, and yet Aly Raisman got the all-around spot, with Martha Karolyi willing to put up a lower-scoring routine in qualifications because she felt Raisman was the better all-arounder of the two. This is exactly what went down with the final British all-around spot, and though Tinkler was the better bars worker of the two, the spot went to Fragapane, notoriously rough on that event, leaving Tinkler to perform only on three apparatuses in qualifications.
In hindsight, with Fragapane falling twice and missing the final while Tinkler had one of the greatest performances of her career, it wasn’t a good decision. And because they only used two all-arounders in qualifications, it meant with Fragapane missing out, one of the top teams in the world only qualified a single all-arounder into the final. Every other country there with a full team aside from Belgium qualified two all-arounders.
Ellie Downie making it in with her fall on floor, where she was able to compete only about 75% of her routine, was a testament to how strong she was elsewhere. In the end, she and Tinkler were the only individuals to reach finals, with Tinkler earning a spot on floor over Fragapane, who was the favorite to do so. (Fragapane actually earned the same score of 14.333 as finalist Erika Fasana, but missed the final due to the tiebreaker rule that favored Fasana’s execution score, a tenth higher than that of Fragapane’s).
Still, even with the disappointments that struck the team on the qualifying day, the team finished with a 174.064, one of the top scores the women have ever earned, and only six tenths behind Russia. The only fall they ended up counting was Fragapane’s beam fall, while the Russians finished their qualifications counting two falls, so the teams were almost equal and went into the final with the notion that anything could happen. It wasn’t over yet.
Overall, the team final was nearly perfect, with some of their strongest work ever across all four events. Becky Downie hit both bars and beam, Fragapane proved herself with the top beam score for the Brits in addition to hitting both vault and floor, Tinkler continued upping her game with brilliant work on vault and floor, and Harrold contributed the second-best bars score.
As for Ellie Downie, she showcased excellent work on three of her events, but unfortunately fell on her risky standing arabian on beam, the team’s only error. With the Russians in the same rotation group also counting a fall on beam from Angelina Melnikova, the two teams were on equal standing, and Great Britain actually gained some ground on floor, outperforming the Russians by seven tenths.
But it then came down to vault, where Russia had their secret weapon in Maria Paseka’s Amanar, and they were able to outscore the Brits by a full point there. That plus their superior bars rotation, which gave them a one point lead at the very start of the day, pushed them up to the silver medal position while Great Britain finished fifth, a little over two points back with a 174.362.
In the end, it didn’t matter that Ellie Downie fell on beam. Russia and China both also counted a fall, and so the silver and bronze medals in Rio were decided by a team’s difficulty. If everything else went as it did that day with the exception of Downie hitting beam rather than falling, the British women still wouldn’t have reached the podium without another fall from either Russia or China. The fall did allow the Japanese team, with an almost perfect day, to finish fourth, just 0.009 (yes, that’s nine thousandths) ahead…but Great Britain simply wasn’t going to medal without relying on large mistakes from the heavy hitters.
Even with the fall, even though it was “only” fifth place, the British women had their best Olympic team final finish in history, and bested their 2015 World Championships team score by two full points. Like the Japanese, they may not have earned a medal, but it was still a major victory for the program, which has made heaps of progress in the last decade.
Prior to 2012, Great Britain shockingly hadn’t competed in a team final since 1984, and that was only because most of the strongest nations boycotted the Los Angeles Games due to the Cold War. In fact, the first time they qualified a full team to a fully-attended Games in the modern era was 2000. They qualified in tenth there, in 11th in 2004, and ninth in 2008, always coming so close yet so far until they beefed up the program in preparation for the London Games, where they placed sixth, one spot up from their seventh-place finish in 1984.
The pressure may have been on the women for a medal this year, but fifth place is still one spot better than sixth, making it an historic finish no matter what (Great Britain did win bronze in the team final the first time women competed in gymnastics at the Olympic Games in 1928, but the sport’s events have changed so much, so this year’s finish was the best in the modern era). The women proved that they are fighters, fixing so many errors between qualifications and finals, and then not letting a single fall in the team final bring them down. So it wasn’t the best team final or competition overall that Great Britain was hoping for, but it still surpassed what so many teams before them had been able to accomplish.
In the all-around final, Downie unfortunately struggled again. She had a large mistake on her pak on bars and took her double layout to her knees, but still managed a 13.783, and then she put her hands down on her Patterson dismount on beam for a 13.7 there, though had great work on vault and floor, and still finished 13th with a 56.883. She would have been a major contender for bronze without the mistakes, so it was a bummer to see her not live up to her potential, but she’s only 17. If she’s anything like her sister, she will hopefully have years left to grow and get even better than she is right now.
The biggest moment for Great Britain came with Tinkler’s fantastic finish in the floor final, where she stood out in a very close-knit field to win the bronze medal with a 14.933, the best floor score of her career by over three tenths. She did have some little errors here and there, but capped it off with a stuck double pike and showed clean form and mostly solid landings throughout, giving her an edge over fourth-place Vanessa Ferrari, who had the advantage of going last but took too many steps on landings to surpass Tinkler’s score.
Like the women’s team finals finish, Tinkler’s bronze also has an historic shine to it, as she is the first British woman to medal on floor exercise and only the second British woman in history to earn an individual medal in artistic gymnastics at the Olympic Games after Beth Tweddle got bronze on the uneven bars in 2012.
In British gymnastics, there are definitely areas where the women can grow, and their shortcomings in comparison to the top teams were evident here. However, at the same time, they also managed to show just how far they’ve come in a super short amount of time. Their trajectory has climbing rapidly, and it’s a momentum they can keep up going into the coming quad. These past few years have showed that the British women can hang with the big dogs, so now the goal will be to cement themselves in that position. It won’t be easy, but they showed in Rio that they’re well on their way to making the dream come true.
Article by Lauren Hopkins