Olympian, Two-Time World Medalist Ellie Downie Announces Retirement

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Ellie Downie

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

15 thoughts on “Olympian, Two-Time World Medalist Ellie Downie Announces Retirement

  1. I am so angry that British Gymnastics haven’t learned a thing from the Whyte Review, and from the likes of Louis Smith, Amy Tinkler and Nile Wilson speaking up against them. How can the system change when coaches that are known to not have the best interests of gymnasts at heart are continually promoted to the highest position? How can these same coaches pat themselves on the back for getting their favourites to the top, whilst they ostracize athletes like Ellie?

    There are a growing number of clubs in the UK moving away from BG to IGA because there is so much disillusionment within the gymnastics community. I’m a coach and wouldn’t ever want my child to be good at the sport, as I’ve seen too much first hand.

    Gymnastics is broken worldwide, and we need more gymnasts to stand up for the future generations, but it shouldn’t be at the risk of getting blacklisted from competing.

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    • Completely agree. I do remember seeing that a number of fans and people within the sport as well were absolutely rude and unfair to some of their athletes named to teams that the Downies did not make (namely Alice Kinsella for the Olympics and Jennifer Gadirova for worlds this year), so I understand how this could fuel the fire for the teams at both competitions, and it’s incredible to see those young ladies coming away with massive success.

      But this “revenge” attitude and response directed specifically at the Downies is so completely unprofessional and irresponsible, especially as the program continues priding itself on “creating change” in the culture. If they truly wanted change, they wouldn’t employ multiple people who behave in this smarmy and immature way, and who intentionally blacklisted and tormented athletes who didn’t toe the line to the point where one of them literally could not take it anymore.

      How are any of their current stars and favorites supposed to feel comfortable bringing up even minor issues within their experiences when they saw first-hand how the Downies were treated when they came forward? They can talk about their commitment to changing the culture all they want, but if they’re going to keep people around who are the literal embodiment of an abusive culture in the highest national team roles, absolutely nothing will move them forward.

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      • I sadly don’t think anything’s going to be achieved whilst egos come before the gymnasts. Why have two of GBs top female gymnasts of the last quad felt bullied out of the sport they’ve dedicated their lives to? Alice Kinsella received horrible treatment because she was the “easy target” due to her coach being married to the national team selector.

        They all deserve better. When Daniel Keatings retired back in 2014/5, he was vocal about ‘the culture of fear’ before others were brave enough to share their experiences. He got treated poorly, as did Daniel Purvis, Sam Oldham and countless others. It’s clear that as soon as British Gymnastics has a shiny new star in either MAG/WAG, these top athletes get forced out before they’re ready to retire.

        British Gymnastics needs ripping apart entirely. Their ‘reeducating’ abusive, churlish coaches is going to damage the sport for at least the next generation. Ingrained behaviour is not going to be unlearned in a very short period of time, is it now?

        Change isn’t change if nothing actually changes!

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        • That’s a good point about the old stars being forced out when someone shiny and new comes along. It’s so frustrating, Ellie was truly at her best before Covid hit, and likely could have gotten back to an incredibly strong place had the federation continued investing in her and supported her when she needed help over the past few years. I always assumed we’d see her going into her 30s like her sister, and 23 seems impossibly young for her to be done. This is entirely on the federation and is so frustrating and disappointing.

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        • Alice K got unnecessary hate because she didn’t ever make a team on anything but merit. She couldn’t help who her coaches were.
          There was no way she wasn’t going to the Olympics after her successes over the whole quad.
          She and Jessica were locks, the question marks were over the other two spots.

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        • Yeah, that’s how I always felt about Alice, she was very deserving and impossible to leave home even just for her beam alone. On top of that, being one of the top all-arounders and having a DTY, she was absolutely a lock and her Olympic hate was so bizarre. She would have definitely made the team regardless of who her coaches were! And even if she WERE questionable for the team, there’s such a difference between legitimate debate over the selection, and just being cruel to an athlete who played no part in the decision aside from hitting her routines.

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        • Alice has been the rock of the British team basically since she turned senior. The way she was treated by the gymternet as a whole is just disgusting and she deserves so much better – she’s a kind, thoughtful, dependable young woman who has stepped up to lead the entire GB squad with grace, humility, and maturity and has absolutely earned every international assignment she’s gotten.

          That said – because despite it all I *do* believe the right teams went to Tokyo and Liverpool – the way BG has treated the Downies has been indisputably abusive, and I am so, so sad that Ellie feels this is her best option. She and her sister deserve the same chance to prove themselves and earn international assignments just the way Alice, the Gadirovi, Ondine, Amelie, and GMF have over the last few years, and they absolutely have not gotten it.

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    • Thank you! This is the one medal I CONSTANTLY forget, I always think of Beth Tweddle’s gold as GB’s only worlds floor medal (until Gadirova this year of course!) and my brain simply refuses to remember 2017, which makes no sense because that was my favorite routine of hers (the Nuttycracker Suite from Thoroughly Modern Millie)!

      Like

    • Thank you so much – the podcast with all of the information about her recent experiences was a sad and frustrating listen, but worth it to understand her mental state over the past few years after she initially came forward. Such a hard time it’s been for her between the backlash, Covid, injuries, her brother’s death…and such a shame that the federation did not support her through this at all, and if anything, made things harder for her.

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  2. That email is absolutely despicable and shows that British Gymnastics really has learned nothing. Poor Ellie, but she has done the right thing. I could not live my life this way and I’m surprised that Becky has put up with as much as she has. I’m speculating but for a couple of these older ones still in the team (Simm as well) I wonder if it’s just not knowing what else to do with their lives that keeps them going. That’s the problem with fully throwing yourself into a sport from early childhood – there’s no real exit plan.

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    • It’s SO gross. What grown ass man takes pleasure in torturing and then later making a joke out of a 23-year-old young woman who has been through hell and back over the past few years? Especially someone he should have been helping through her situation because that would have been the best thing for her AND for his team!

      I agree that a lot of gymnasts probably feel a bit stuck…I do think some of them (Simm, Kim Bui) are just enjoying the ability to continue competing while also focusing on getting advanced degrees, and they stay because they just love it regardless of whether they are competitive enough for teams, but others truly have lived their whole lives as gymnasts and it’s so hard to move on from that. Even in the U.S., the ones who go into NCAA programs tend to come out a little better on the other side, it gives them other options, interests, social circles, experiences…this is less about the Downies and more about the issue in general, but when you’ve been in such an insular community like elite gymnastics, especially if you’re also homeschooled, it must feel so impossible to move on, with like…coaching or becoming an influencer the only options. WHICH IS FINE! Zero judgments. Some are making tons of money through social media and are creating entire brands, which is amazing. But without a broader experience outside of the sport, it’s definitely hard for so many to move on from what they know and figure out what to do next which can be so difficult mentally. At least in Ellie’s case, with her advocacy being so important, I hope there’s a place for her to continue doing something along those lines.

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  3. Pingback: Around the Gymternet: Komova had a baby and the only thing on my mind is “perfect timing for 2040” | The Gymternet

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