This site uses cookies to improve your experience and to provide services and advertising. By continuing to browse, you agree to the use of cookies described in our Cookies Policy. You may change your settings at any time but this may impact on the functionality of the site. To learn more see our Cookies Policy.
Dublin: 15 °C Thursday 9 July, 2020

The teenage gymnast set to make history for Ireland at the Olympics

Ellis O’Reilly chats to The42 about competing in Rio, balancing education and sport, and her link with Katie Taylor.

Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

FOR ELLIS O’REILLY, 12 years of hard work had led up to one moment last week.

The 18-year-old Irish gymnast had earned an invite for the Aquece Rio Gymnastics Qualifier, having put in a strong showing at last year’s World Championships.

Competing in the sport since the age of six, O’Reilly was understandably nervous ahead of this huge event.

Yet top athletes often need help from those around them, and O’Reilly received the necessary support in this moment of high tension.

In order to calm her nerves, Kieran Behan — a fellow Irish gymnast who recently qualified for Rio, while winning silver medal in the process in addition to competing at the London Games — was on hand to help his younger counterpart.

I was really nervous, mainly in the morning, because I was competing in the afternoon,” O’Reilly tells The42. “Kieran helped me a lot. He gave me a little pep talk. That calmed me down quite a bit.

“Then I spoke to my parents, and they calmed me down, saying ‘no matter what happens, they’ll be proud of me’.”

Ellis O'Reilly O'Reilly pictured representing Ireland at last year's European Games in Baku. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

These reassuring words clearly helped, as O’Reilly went on to produce a phenomenal performance. Needing a score of 49.134 to secure her place in Rio, the Irish athlete achieved 50.032 AA.

Not many people get the opportunity, so to actually do it is just amazing. I didn’t really believe myself that I could qualify (at first),” O’Reilly says, coming across as very modest for a teenager who has just become the first-ever Irish female gymnast to qualify for the Olympics.

“To get through the stage at worlds, it was then that I started to believe that I actually could qualify.”

The feat was followed by no shortage of hype and acclaim for the precocious teenager. Minister of State for Tourism and Sport, Michael Ring TD commended her “wonderful performance”. Irish Performance and Technical Manager Sally Filmer described both herself and Behan as “inspirational”. While Gymnastics Ireland CEO, Ciaran Gallagher, savoured a “great week” for the sport.

For O’Reilly though, even the small acknowledgements of her achievement felt special and even poignant. Her mother putting up banners and balloons in preparation for her arrival back home was one such moment. The hero’s welcome and flowers she received upon returning to the Europa Gym Club in Crayford — the venue in which she had put into so many long, unforgiving hours as she sought to realise her dream of reaching Rio — was another touching tribute.

After I got the news that I qualified, my phone was going crazy,” she adds.

Ellis O'Reilly O'Reilly says it has always been a dream of hers to compete in the Olympics. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

And what made the achievement even more special was that it was unprecedented — never has an Irish female gymnast competed in the Olympics before.

O’Reilly therefore hopes she can serve as a trailblazer, aiming to inspire other young Irish female gymnasts to eventually emulate and perhaps even surpass her achievements.

I think many people in Ireland didn’t really believe that a female gymnast could do that,” she says. “So it’s a great incentive for all the young up-and-coming female athletes to actually see that it’s possible if you put your mind to it.”

A naturally hyperactive individual, controlling her nerves and excess energy is one big challenge that O’Reilly must continue to work on ahead of future events. Many Olympians and athletes in general use a sports psychologist for guidance, and the gymnastics starlet says it’s a route she has contemplated going down herself.

I’ve never used a sports psychologist before but gymnastics is more mental than physical. We sort of looked in to using one, but I’m not sure.

“If you lose concentration for a second, you risk injury and being out of training and competing for a long time. So it is a really (mentally) demanding sport.”

Ellis O'Reilly O'Reilly admits she was very nervous before last week's big event. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

O’Reilly’s ambition for Rio is to “upgrade some of my routines” and “just go there really, be confident and have a good clean competition, and just see what the outcome is”.

I’m just going to go and enjoy it, I’m obviously not expecting to come anywhere,” she adds.

While going to a strange land with a nation watching on is a somewhat daunting prospect for anyone and in particular, a shy 18-year-old unused to such hoopla and intense media attention (she has been inundated with interview requests of late), O’Reilly will have at least one experienced campaigner to turn to for advice.

Kieran Behan has already had a taste of Olympic action, having represented Ireland at London 2012, and he has known O’Reilly for years.

It was great to have him there (at the qualifier), because he’s been through the experience and I’ve seen how hard Kieran’s been training recently. So it was great for it all to come together for him (in his event).

“He’s someone I get along with and he’s always helping me along the way.”

Like Behan, O’Reilly was born and raised in London, only learning she was eligible to represent Ireland “a few years ago,” qualifying through her Armagh-born grandfather.

My coach, my parents and I had a conversation about it — we thought Ireland would be the best route for me,” she recalls.

“We went and approached (Gymnastics Ireland) and I had to do a competition to show my routines and if I’d be any use to the team.”

Kieran Behan A pep talk from fellow Irish gymnast Kieran Behan helped O'Reilly get over a bout of nerves prior to her Olympics qualification. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

They were unsurprisingly impressed with what they saw, and O’Reilly has been representing Ireland ever since.

Another significant challenge is combining school with gymnastics. When she’s not working towards achieving record-breaking sporting feats, O’Reilly is studying for her A Levels (essentially, the British equivalent of the Leaving Cert).

She is hoping to study to become a PE teacher, and has a conditional offer from a university, which is dependent on her achieving certain grades before hopefully starting college in September.

Staying focused on study is not easy though, as the youngster is training up to six days a week, with sessions usually lasting at least four hours, and generally taking place directly after school. However, some allowances have been made owing to this hectic schedule.

The school are really helpful. They’d give me extra time and when I’m away, they’d email me the work so I could catch up.”

Katie Taylor makes her way to the ring O'Reilly's sister, Jenna, led Katie Taylor to the ring prior to her historic London 2012 triumph. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

O’Reilly comes from a big sporting family. Both her brothers and her sister are involved in boxing. Her 20-year-old sister, Jenna, even led out Katie Taylor at the last Olympic Games, owing to her own impressive achievements in the sport, having won four amateur titles in Britain.

However, despite her siblings’ evident talent, O’Reilly quickly decided boxing was not for her and opted to focus on gymnastics from a young age.

My mum wanted to get me into sport and I was quite an energetic child. So I tried various sports like horse riding and ballet, and I didn’t really enjoy them and got bored quite quickly. But gymnastics is a sport where it’s more challenging to get bored.”

She is keen to emphasise the role played by her parents in her success, generally providing plenty of support and frequently giving her lifts to training, although she recently learned to drive herself.

My family help a lot,” she continues. “They know that I spend most of my time in the gym. So when I come home, I don’t want to talk about the gym for hours, so it’s just nice family things together, like watching TV and going to the cinema.”

And while O’Reilly may not always be keen on intensively dissecting her performances, her passion for gymnastics is clear.

“I love the feeling after I finish a hard session,” she explains. “The feeling of accomplishment of getting closer to where I want to be in gymnastics. I love when a competition goes well, when all the hard training has been worth it.”

The42 is on Snapchat! Tap the button below on your phone to add!

‘No timetable’ as speculation mounts on Tiger Woods’ return>

Carl Frampton to face Santa Cruz for WBA featherweight crown>

  • Share on Facebook
  • Email this article

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel