For any gymnast, qualifying to the Olympics is an incredible accomplishment, and every journey is filled with stories of success and heartache.
This year, Austrian gymnast Elisa Hämmerle‘s story in particular stood out to me, as she was a favorite to earn an Olympic spot in 2016, but a last-second injury took her out of contention.
I talked to Elisa about this injury and everything that happened after, right down to her moment of redemption when she finished a performance of a lifetime in Stuttgart with a beautiful floor routine that finally secured her an Olympic spot.
First of all, congratulations on qualifying to the 2020 Olympic Games! Have you celebrated yet?
Thank you very much. Slowly I’m processing all those emotions from the past weeks and also realizing that I finally qualified for the Olympic Games and I’m still overwhelmed with the many lovely messages I got, even from people I don’t know personally. It’s amazing how many people follow your journey.
I really enjoyed celebrating with my family and closest friends. They always supported and went through thick and thin with me. They are really happy for me now that I’ve finally achieved my long-term goal of the Olympic Games.
At 23 years old, you’ve been one of the best elite gymnasts in Austria for about a decade now, first as a junior and then also at the senior level. What were some of your proudest moments earlier in your career?
One of my proudest moments as a junior is definitely the Youth Olympic Games in 2010. I went there with no big expectations, only to show a solid all-around. I saw myself there as more like an underdog, but I proved the opposite. I surprisingly qualified for the all-around final where I could once again improve my performance by five tenths and ended in 12th place. I think that experience kind of opened my eyes and gave me confidence that I can be someone more than only an “average gymnast.”
I also love to look back to 2011, where I participated as a first-year senior at both major events, the individual all-around European Championships in Berlin as well as the World Championships in Tokyo. I took lots of motivation from there back to training to work harder.
In 2016, you were one of two Austrian gymnasts competing at the Olympic Test Event for a spot in Rio, but then at podium training, you tore your Achilles. Can you tell us a bit about how you felt in that moment and in the weeks and months that followed?
I tore my Achilles on floor, more precisely at the takeoff from a whip to double tuck. Companion injuries were partial fracture of the ankle as well as a fully torn deltoid ligament.
When I landed on floor, I knew immediately that something really bad just happened. I grabbed my hand around the spot where the Achilles is supposed to be, but it wasn’t there anymore. Viewing the competition arena, realizing that your dream, for which you worked your whole life, just shattered in a split second as well as knowing that I won’t be competing here in the summer was and still is the most disappointing moment of my career.
The following weeks were devastating. I woke up every morning hoping everything was just a horrific nightmare and that I could move on with my life. But the cast around my leg was a constant reminder of how close I was to being an Olympian. It is really difficult to describe how I felt then but it was like a part of me died and that I kind of lost my identity. I couldn’t recognize the person I saw in the mirror anymore. The purposeful and ambitious Elisa with this huge passion for gymnastics was gone.
After that injury, did you ever think your career was over, or did you know you were going to come back and try again? When did you make the decision to get back into the gym, and did you start setting goals for 2020 early in your comeback, or did you decide to wait and see how things went?
There were many occasions where I thought “should I keep doing this and is it really worth it?” Fighting through that injury and pain was really hard but accepting the fact of ending my career with this tragedy was even harder.
But I wanted to give myself the time I needed to heal and stay away from gymnastics until I really missed it. In October 2016, I began a new chapter in my life and started studying in Innsbruck, 180 km away from my hometown. New town, new people, and a new task switched my thoughts away from gymnastics. I enjoyed the other side of life a lot but the feeling that a piece was missing constantly increased.
In February 2017, I decided to go back to the gym to see how things would go.
We saw you come back on bars and beam in 2017, where you quickly once again became the best in Austria, winning bars at nationals that year, and then winning the bars and beam titles in 2018. Was it easy for you to get these two events back quickly? Did you feel like you became better on these events since they became your focus for a long time?
In general, it was pretty hard to get the strength and springiness as well as the fine motor skills in my injured leg back. The jump to the board on vault and all dance elements I take off with one leg are done from my injured one. Therefore, in the beginning, the only event I could really train was bars. In the meantime, I like to train bars and I could also improve my D and E scores there. Beam was always one of my best events, but I think I can improve my body line there.
I also wanted to ask you about your gym change. I know you used to train in Austria, but now you’re at Pax, is that correct? When did you decide to train in the Netherlands, and how was that transition for you both as a gymnast and just in your daily life?
Yes, it is true that I train at Pax. The decision to change my gym arose when my coach, who had also been the Austrian national coach, quit in the beginning of February of this year. Furthermore, the training situation in Austria was suboptimal. More precisely, training together with the national coach was unfortunately only available two weeks per month, and took place at two different gyms.
In order to not jeopardize a possible Olympic spot at worlds, a professional and quick solution had to be found. I’d already fallen in love with Pax when I did a trial week there in March, because the training attitude of Patrick and Daymon as well as of the girls is extremely professional and highly motivating. A month later, I moved to the Netherlands. I’ve never really felt as a stranger in the Netherlands, because on the one hand everyone speaks English really well, and on the other hand they seem quite open-minded.
It took a little bit of time for my body to get used to the new training, but they always told me that I will get there, I just have to be patient and trust the process. I’m really thankful for the experience there and they welcomed me so warmly and let me feel like I’m a part of their team.
Your first competition back in the all-around was at one of the Dutch trial meets in August. Having not competed vault or floor at a big international meet in more than three years, did you find it difficult to bring them back? Was there some sense of being nervous due to the injury, or was it easy to push that out of your mind?
Getting back my all-around was a pretty tough road with lots of ups and downs. Actually, I wanted to bring my vault and floor back in time for worlds in Doha, but during the preparation I had to deal with serious pain in my other Achilles. The road to Stuttgart was also a narrow tightrope walk between how much I can do with my still “healthy” Achilles tendon and how much rest it needs. Therefore, I decided to change my floor routine from three to two acrobatic lines with only the “necessary” elements just to have all of the requirements. This continual coming and going of Achilles pain was and still is nerve-racking and I’m always afraid of having a “Rio déjà vu.”
Coming into World Championships, I know Tokyo was probably an obvious goal for you. How confident did you feel about making that goal happen? What were your thoughts about your situation in the days leading up to qualifications in Stuttgart?
I was really prepared, not only physically, but also mentally. The trainings in Stuttgart also went pretty well. I think it was an advantage that I’d already done a preparation for an Olympic qualification in 2016. I knew what the pressure was going to be like. I couldn’t think about Tokyo that much because first I had to show a solid all-around on the big stage, something I had last done 3.5 years before.
In the days leading up to Stuttgart, I often looked back on the journey I’ve had since Rio, the ups and downs, the injury and pain I fought through…then I realized for the first time how far I’ve actually come, what I’ve already achieved, and I thought it doesn’t matter what will happen at the competition. I can still be very proud of myself.
I saw your entire competition and thought you looked very focused and strong, mentally, on all four events. Is that how you felt? As you went from apparatus to apparatus, did you start feeling more or less nervous about your performance?
I tried to have my focus only on my key points on each apparatus. Moreover, to stay with my mind in the moment and not five steps ahead. Just like I did in training, nothing more and nothing less.
It sounds easy but I invested a lot of time to train my mind for this moment.
The competition went so fast, there was almost no time for being nervous. But before beam, I was quite nervous. I hadn’t watched the scores but I knew I had to hit.
Now we have to talk about your floor routine. On Instagram you said you were excited to show your new routine, and so I was excited to see it. I absolutely loved the choreography and music, and I thought you performed it brilliantly. Is there a story behind the routine? What makes this routine so special for you?
Thank you very much for your lovely compliment.
The title of the song is “Seven Nation Army” originally by The White Stripes, but interpreted from 2Cellos. I guess almost everyone knows that song, especially after the second beat. The story behind the routine is kind of what the lyrics of this song are saying, like dealing with the gossip when you rise in fame.
The special thing about the routine is that we made a show of it, like showing different types of faces and emotions. All in all, I think the character of this routine just fits with my gymnastics style.
When you ended your floor routine, which was your final routine of the competition in Stuttgart, you had such an emotional response to finishing. How were you feeling in that moment?
At the end of my routine, I run forward with my arms spread wide to the side. It felt like I could throw off all ballast I had carried with me the last three years. After I came back from my injury it was my goal to achieve the performance level I had at the Test Event in Rio, or actually to finish that competition. I was just really proud and couldn’t believe that I just hit all four events.
So, you competed in the fourth subdivision, on the first day of qualifications. Since there were twelve subdivisions overall, how did you get through the next couple of days waiting to find out if you’d qualify to Tokyo? Did you know deep down that your performance would be enough, or were you nervous waiting for all of the final results to come in?
The next qualification day was even more nerve-racking than mine was, especially watching Eythora [Thorsdottir; Elisa’s Pax teammate] and the Dutch girls in the morning. Mandy [Mohamed; Elisa’s Pax teammate who competes for Egypt] and I were constantly checking the results and guessing who could be in front of us. I knew that my position after day one was quite good, but there were still many good girls in the upcoming rotations. This day felt like the longest ever. At the Oktoberfest next to the competition venue, we literally rode roller coasters to get a little bit distracted.
When did you finally know for sure that you were going to Tokyo, and how did it feel to make that dream come true?
After the last girl finished her routine, we knew for sure we would be in those 20 Olympic spots. Mandy and I jumped up and fell in each other’s arms and couldn’t hold back tears anymore. This moment will forever stay in my mind. It was so special but felt also so unreal. The moment when you realize that all your hard work finally pays off is one of the best feelings ever. For that, it is always worth it to risk it and try one more time. I still have tears in my eyes when I think about it.
One cool thing about training at Pax is that you have a few teammates who qualified as well! Eythora Thorsdottir helped the Netherlands qualify a full team to Tokyo, and Mandy Mohamed qualified for Egypt. Did it help having your club teammates around in Stuttgart for that extra support? Were you able to watch their competitions and cheer for them at all?
Due to the fact that all of us stayed in different hotels and were competing in different rotations, which also means different training times, we hardly saw each other before the competition. But we kept ourselves updated on WhatsApp.
Unfortunately, my competition was immediately after Mandy’s. I could follow her competition only a little bit on the screen in the warm-up hall. The next day we both watched Eythora’s competition and cheered her on.
Going forward, you now have about nine months before the Olympics. What are your plans during this time? Do you have any competitions in mind yet to get a bit more experience in? Are you working on any upgrades or just trying to stay healthy?
I will continue training in the Netherlands and will try to upgrade my routines. I don’t think I’ve already reached my maximum; there is still space for improvement. But my number one priority will of course be to stay healthy. The focus will now only be on the Olympics, and all competitions beforehand will be wisely selected.
Now looking back at a 10-year elite career having reached the top achievement in the sport of gymnastics, what advice would you give to your 13-year-old self just getting started on this journey?
Have patience, and don’t expect that everything is going to be straightforward. There will be ups and downs, and therefore it is important to surround yourself with positive people who believe in your dreams, encourage your ideas, support your ambitions, and bring out the best in you. Have fun, and enjoy the journey.
Interview by Lauren Hopkins
Special thank you to Elisa Hämmerle for taking the time to speak with us!