European champion, two-time world championships bronze medalist, and 2016 Olympic all-around finalist Ellie Downie announced her retirement from elite gymnastics after spending nearly a decade as a significant figure and history-maker for her country and in the sport, both as an athlete and as a leader for change.
“With a heavy heart and an array of emotions, today is the day I announce my retirement from gymnastics,” Downie, 23, said in her social media post, noting that a lot of factors led to her making the decision, including the treatment she experienced under members of British Gymnastics’ leadership, which she discusses in detail with Dr. Alex George on Stompcast, a mental health podcast.
There’s so much to unpack here, including the backlash after she came forward in 2020 about abuse in the sport and how the trial process for world championships last year significantly contributed to severe emotional and physical strain. After withdrawing from the selection process for the 2020 Olympic Games following the shocking and devastating loss of her brother, Downie made a push to return to the sport in 2022, but at the conclusion of the test camp for worlds – where she was first on beam, second on vault, and third on floor, allegedly meeting all selection requirements – she was only named an alternate for Liverpool.
Downie said the decision made her feel “worthless,” and she wondered if she was still being penalized for speaking up about abuse. “I just felt, am I ever going to make a team again? I don’t feel like I am,” she recalled. “It just felt like constant mental games. It was like they were trying to wear me out, and ultimately they did.”
The selection committee reportedly claimed she wasn’t selected because she hadn’t competed in three years at that point, and there seemed to be a fear that this could lead to a nervous performance at the most important international competition in the program’s recent history. This is a valid concern for any coach, but given the fact that her fate had essentially been decided prior to the trial even beginning, Downie felt the odds had been stacked against her, and refused both the reserve spot as well as the chance to compete at a world cup.
“My life felt really out of control. Like, [British Gymnastics] were ultimately in control of my life, and if they weren’t ever going to select me for teams again then what was the point?” Downie said, adding that she wasn’t able to get out of bed, stopped training, and didn’t know how to move forward. “I tried to go into the gym a couple of times, but every day I’d go in, I’d cry, I’d be so upset, I’d be falling on everything just because my head was so scrambled.”
In addition to the team selection, Downie said there were a number of comments – mostly from head coach David Kenwright – that made her feel ostracized. He allegedly told people she wasn’t a good sport for giving up the alternate spot, and also warned a physiotherapist that he should “be careful working closely” with Downie because she “tried to take down the organization [and] might try to take [them] down.” Kenwright also sent an email to the silver medal-winning world championships team after their victory that said: “For all the knocks, setbacks, disappointments, the attacks on professional and personal integrity, the naysayers, and non-believers, this one simple fact remains – we overcame it all.”
British Gymnastics warned Kenwright about the tone of the email, which also said “success is the best revenge,” and stated that his language was “unacceptable and not in line with [their] culture and commitment to reform.” They also released a statement in the wake of Downie’s announcement, claiming that much of what she discussed is being addressed, including Kenwright’s conduct during trials and after worlds: “A subsequent discipline and education process took place and this is being monitored as an ongoing process.”
Despite this, that email was the final straw for Downie, who said she simply could no longer see a way back. She believes the wrong person is in charge of the women’s national program, and feels there won’t be any actual change until athletes are able to speak up without fear of repercussions.
It’s disappointing to see the end come like this and for her career, which seemed like it was still only just beginning when she won the bronze medal on vault at world championships in 2019. We didn’t know it then, but that would be Downie’s last time out after competing at the international elite level for seven years, including two as one of the world’s top juniors, and then five as a wildly successful senior.
As a junior, Downie was both an English and British champion, the European Youth Olympic Festival vault champion, the European vault champion and all-around bronze medalist, and a four-time medalist at the Youth Olympic Games, winning the silver on vault in addition bronze in the all-around, on beam, and on floor.
Downie began her senior career in 2015 with a collection of national medals before going on to win bronze in the all-around at European Championships, her first of 10 continental medals, which included the all-around title in 2017 followed by the silver in 2019, silver with her team in 2016, and apparatus medals on three separate pieces, including vault in 2016, 2017, and 2019, uneven bars in 2017, and floor exercise in 2016 and 2017.
She also made her world championships debut that year, contributing routines on all four events in the team final to help the British women win the program’s first world team medal in history by upsetting the Russians to take the bronze. In 2016, she became the first woman in 41 years to win a gold medal on all four events at a world or challenge cup when she swept the competition in Osijek, and she made her Olympic debut that summer, doing some of the best work of her career in the team final to help the British women finish fifth, at the time their best finish since 1928.
Over the next three years, in addition to her success at Euros, Downie won a number of national titles, including the all-around titles in 2017 and 2019, and she worked tirelessly to increase her difficulty on a number of events, especially on vault, where her upgrade to a Cheng made her one of the most competitive gymnasts in the world on this apparatus. At the world championships in 2019, Downie successfully competed her new vault to narrowly edge out other frontrunners – including the 2018 silver and bronze medalists – for the bronze medal, which was the first individual worlds medal of her career and the first vault medal at worlds for Great Britain.
Downie’s hard work and dedication to the sport secured her spot in the history books as one of the greatest British gymnasts of all time, just as her bravery and selflessness in speaking out about the physical, emotional, and mental abuses she and many others have endured in the culture of British gymnastics has cemented a legacy far more significant than her results. Her decision to leave the sport in order to prioritize her mental health and happiness is just as powerful as all of the medals and achievements she’s amassed over the years, and while we’re sad to see her career as a competitor come to an end, her work in making gymnastics a better sport for all athletes is only just getting started.
Article by Lauren Hopkins