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Ireland’s teen gymnast is getting by with a little help from some unlikely friends

Ellis O’Reilly talks to The42 about staying calm but exploding off the vault as she makes her Olympic debut on Sunday.

Source: The42.ie/YouTube

Sinéad O’Carroll reports from Rio de Janeiro 

TWO YOUNG WOMEN, both pocket-sized but awesome, fist-bump each other as they pass in the arena. 

One just about to jump onto the uneven bars, congratulating the other on her steady performance.

It’s not an unusual sight in the gym these days — gymnastics isn’t the overtly cut-throat business it once was — but this friendship is an unlikely one.

They aren’t team members. They are competitors.

Ellis O’Reilly, 18, originally from Eltham in London, England is dressed head-to-toe in Irish rigout. Beside her, Tori-Ann Williams, a US college student two years her senior, wears Jamaican colours on her arm.

Their similar body shapes aren’t the only thing they have in common.

They are both making their Olympic debuts on Sunday for countries which have never before had a female gymnast at the Games; for nations in which they weren’t born but have since adopted.

Britain Gymnastics Worlds Source: Matthias Schrader

History-makers

Williams qualifies for Jamaica through her parents, both of whom were born on the Caribbean island. She says she feels closer to her heritage now because of the decision to declare for her ancestral home in 2011.

O’Reilly has a similar story. And an Irish granny.

“I joined Team Ireland about four years ago now. I wasn’t sure that I could compete for Ireland at first, but it’s definitely given me more opportunities,” she tells The42 from the Rio Olympic Arena.

But those opportunities were not easily turned into tangibles. There were World Championships and a test event where she had to hit a certain ranking.

She did. And now she is hoping to show what she can do on the Olympic stage.

While not a medal hope, having a gymnast in the one of the most-watched disciplines of the Games is a boon for the sport in Ireland.

Ellis O'Reilly Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

When The42 caught up with the youngest member of Ireland’s Olympic team yesterday, it was during her and Williams’ podium training session, where the gymnasts get to practice on each apparatus in the arena.

Most of the athletes are in their country’s teams, supported by each other as well as coaches and managers. The Chinese girls smiled at each other while coaches made sure to break their falls as their tiny frames tumbled across the floor. The Belgians, more boisterous, cheered every good performance and perfected dismount.

For O’Reilly and Williams, their group is one made up of countries with solo participants: Ireland, Jamaica, Panama. But they have found each other. They have made a team out of individuals.

There were claps when the other did well, and those fist-bumps at each dismount. An obvious will to see each other succeed.

O’Reilly’s support network say that the girls have been a great help to each other as they settle into the unusual and hectic surroundings of Rio during the run-up to the Opening Ceremony tonight.

She takes everything in her stride, says her team manager Sally Filmer. She is, of course, a teenage girl and excited about being at the Olympic Games — especially when the hard work was done in even reaching this pinnacle — but it hasn’t overwhelmed her.

“It was good that we came in quite early before loads of athletes came so we had a chance to, sort of, know where to go and our whereabouts,” O’Reilly explains, using few words.

She is more animated when talking about herself as a gymnast, rather than the person. She’s happy to call herself an explosive athlete, confident on the vault and floor.

Yesterday’s session went “really well”, she says, happily.

I hit all my routines so hopefully I can just stay calm and do that on Sunday as well.

In the midst of all the travel, training and acclimatisation to the Athletes’ Village, O’Reilly noticed – and tweeted about – being ‘verified’ by Twitter (the social media giant gives people of note a blue tick so users can easily tell the real person from the fakes – and once an Olympian, always an Olympian).

She giggles when we ask her about that moment.

That teenage girl, again. But it’s more than that the novelty of the spotlight. It’s the joy of being part of something. The joy of being on a team. The joy of participation.

The joy of the Olympic Games.

More from The42 in Rio:

‘This is what we’ve been pushing for’: Irish hockey is finally having its Olympic moment

Ireland’s Olympic scandal: From medal dreams to a failed drugs test

‘I’m definitely starting as one of the favourites and I’ll be marked in that way’

You can follow Ellis O’Reilly on Twitter here >

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