Ellie Downie retires, prioritizing her ‘happiness’ — Other gym news — Thoughts from Christina Chauvenet
The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, Jan. 28, 2023
Ellie Downie announced her retirement this week from elite gymnastics “to prioritise [her] mental health and happiness.” Downie, a stalwart of 2010s British teams, was the 2017 Euros all-around champion, a 10-time Euros medalist, a two-time worlds bronze medalist (with Team Great Britain [GB] in 2015 and on vault in 2019), and a member of the 2016 Olympic team.
But as much as we will remember Downie for her power and grace in the gym, so too must we remember her for her bravery in speaking out about abuse in the sport — bravery that she said probably cost her more opportunities to compete. Downie’s legacy, beyond her actual gymnastics, will be her stance that mental health is more important than medals.
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Downie addressed her retirement and the circumstances around it on Stompcast, a podcast about mental health, with its host, Dr. Alex George. So give that a listen, because what I say here cannot compare to hearing it straight from Downie.
During Downie’s career, both she and British gymnastics made history. Downie was the first British gymnast to win an all-around Euros medal and then the first to win the all-around at Euros altogether. She was the first British gymnast to win a world vault title. At the time, Team GB’s fifth-place team finish at the Rio Olympics was the best result they had achieved since 1928.
So it was shocking when Downie, a presumed frontrunner to make the Tokyo Olympics team as well, came forward in 2020 with her allegations of abuse in the sport. In a joint statement on Instagram with her sister Becky also a top British gymnast, Ellie wrote: “For almost the entirety of my career, my weight has been something I’ve been made to feel ashamed of. From 14 years old I’ve been told to diet constantly.”
Downie described being told to submit photos of herself in her underwear to demonstrate weight loss, to drop roughly a pound a day for two weeks after a national team camp or “there’d be consequences” including not being named to teams, of regular weigh-ins and hiding food “to this day.”
Both Downie sisters said they had raised concerns to British Gymnastics officials by 2018, after which weigh-ins stopped, but both said they still felt the culture in the organization was harmful to gymnasts’ mental health and well-being.
Ellie withdrew from the selection process for the Tokyo Olympics after her brother died suddenly. Becky was not named to the team, in what many considered a retaliation for the Downie sisters’ openness about alleged abuse.
And when Ellie Downie tried to make the worlds team last year, she was told at the conclusion of the trials process that because she had not competed for three years, she was considered too risky for team selection and offered only an alternate spot, which she turned down. “Am I not selected before I’ve even tried?” she said she thought at the time.
After Team GB won a silver team medal in Liverpool, David Kenwright, the head coach for the British women’s program, sent the team an email that said, in part, “success is the best revenge” and alluded to getting revenge on “naysayers and nonbelievers” — a reference, Ellie Downie said, to her and to Becky. And although British Gymnastics criticized Kenwright for that email, Downie told Stompcast that she could not see ever making a team again with him in charge. That email, Downie said, was the nail in the coffin of her elite gymnastics career.
“Ultimately, I just knew I needed to be happy again,” Downie said.
I hope retirement brings Downie happiness, and I hope that we see her again in our sport in some form.
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Other gym news
Props to Lauren Hopkins’ writeup about Ellie Downie at The Gymternet. Hopkins covered Downie’s entire career and you can feel the emotion in her article.
Here’s Balance Beam Situation’s fabulous link to all the NCAA meets this weekend.
And here is the BBS’ GIF roundup of last week’s NCAA meets.
See all the week’s scores on Road to Nationals.
This was a bit of a soft week for most of the NCAA’s top teams, with no one hitting 198 and a few teams shuffling spots in the top 10. Auburn bested Arkansas and is one of the few top teams that can be proud of their result. In a big upset, Michigan State topped Michigan. Oklahoma beat Utah at home, but lacked their usual bevy of stuck landings. Florida beat Alabama on the road, but without their usual Florida finesse in doing so. LSU beat Missouri, but not particularly decisively; same deal with UCLA over Washington. Elsewhere in the SEC, Georgia will be proud about topping Kentucky, and elsewhere in the Pac-12, Oregon State will be happy with a victory over Denver, Brown and Sac State.
GymCastic had Vanessa Atler on and helped her choose an NCAA team to root for.
Marz Frazier hit her 100th consecutive routine without a fall.
Viktoria Komova had a baby.
Alabama alum Aja Sims-Fletcher has been named head coach of the new gymnastics program at Talladega College. Sims-Fletcher announced the news via Brown Girls Do Gymnastics’ IG.
The McLaren report on abuses within Gymnastics Canada is out, and while I haven’t read it in its entirety, it’s not great. There’s a lot of blame on the gymnasts and the new system for abuse reporting sounds a lot like SafeSport in the U.S. — which is to say, things are going to be slow to happen.
The IOC released a statement that both expresses solidarity with Ukraine while also wondering how it can get Russia and Belarus back into competition, and just…no.
Five at The IX: Christina Chauvenet
I’m so excited to welcome Christina Chauvenet back to The IX. When I last interviewed her back in August, Chauvenet, a freelance gymnastics commentator, had recently moved to Washington, D.C. from North Carolina and was looking to expand her on-air presence beyond the University of North Carolina, where she covered seven NCAA gym seasons, and North Carolina State, where she covered three. On January 8, Chauvenet (along with another former Five at The IXer, Dr. Sam, Ph.D.) commentated Long Island University’s home opener against Yale, which was also LIU’s Pride Meet. We chatted about her burgeoning career, the importance of getting athlete pronouns right, and where Chauvenet hopes to go from here. If you want to catch Chauvenet live, here is her schedule for the 2023 season! This interview has been edited for clarity.
I think we may have discussed your move beyond North Carolina commentary previously, but how did the LIU commentary get started? Did you reach out, or did they? Tell me a little about that process, please.
CC: I moved from North Carolina to DC in summer, 2022. I had covered LIU in the EAGL championships in 2022, so Randy [Lane, LIU’s head coach] and I had gotten to know each other. I let Randy know I was moving up to DC and that I would be available to cover their meets.
Being in DC is great because the train line in the NE corridor is so good, it makes traveling in the mid-Atlantic so easy! It’s also allowed me to take more assignments in other places in the mid-Atlantic (like I am commentating a few meets at Temple this season). So, he got in touch and let me know the January 6 meet was available, and I jumped on it!
You did commentary for LIU’s Pride Meet, which also featured the debut of nonbinary athlete Syd Morris. It’s my understanding that you (and Sam) provided the first gym commentary featuring a nonbinary athlete and they/them pronouns. That’s quite the honor! How did it feel and what do you hope people will take from this?
CC: It was a true honor to commentate [Morris’] debut. Firstly, as a four-star recruit and I’d say LIU’s most prestigious recruit to date. They are going to be an NCAA star. Their beam work in particular is exceptional-great toe point, extension, power in their leaps, their unique switch split–>pike jump combination. But also they are a great performer on floor and powerful on vault, and they are working on bars as well. So it’s always exciting to commentate the debut of an athlete you know is going to be a NCAA star. I remember commentating Khazia Hislop’s debut and feeling similarly, and she went on to be an All-American.
Regarding Syd’s debut as a nonbinary athlete, I know there are a few other NCAA gymnasts that use they/them pronouns, but I think this is the first instance where it’s been public and commentators have used they/them pronouns on air. I have to give credit here to Half in Half Out, the LGBTQ+ podcast. I check in with them every time I commentate a Pride meet and they reminded me of Syd’s pronouns and that it was public information. Shout out also to Jackson Harrison, a nonbinary gymnast at Arizona State, who’s been hugely important as I think the first out non-binary gymnasts in college. They have really paved the way for Syd and others, and they pushed a lot of important conversations forward about nonbinary gymnasts belonging in the sport.
Anyway, I want to make sure that anytime I am commentating for a Pride meet that I highlight LGBTQ+ gymnasts only if they want to be in that spotlight. Not everyone does, and that’s ok of course. In this case, Randy had shared with me that Syd was very public about their identity and Randy arranged for me to speak with them before the meet so I could chat with them about how they wanted their identity described. Sam Marshall commentated with me in that meet, which was hugely helpful as she is involved with the Half in Half Out podcast and is an ally for LGBTQ+ athletes as well. So we were really on the same page about highlighting Syd and centering the Pride theme in our coverage.
I hope what people take from the meet is that celebrating and affirming people’s identity has a place in sports. Nonbinary athletes can be (and are) top athletes excelling in their sport. It doesn’t detract or call attention away from the athletic performance. It’s a right of the athletes to have their pronouns used appropriately and it’s the job of broadcasters to do that. One thing I have taken away as a best practice is proactively asking coaches before a meet to share their athletes’ pronouns that they would like to be used on air. That way I’m making sure that I am not missing anyone. It’s something I should have been doing a long time ago but better late than never.
What makes the LIU program special, in your eyes?
CC: Of course there are standout athletes, like Syd Morris or Mara Titarsolej. But overall what makes the program special to me is just to see the rapid growth of the program and how gymnastics fans have rallied around them. It’s wild to think that they are already regularly scoring in the 194s in just their third year. Gymnastically, their artistry and dance on floor is something that really stands out. The expressiveness of their routines and their choreography is up there with some of the very best in the country. Ella Barrington’s triple turn is just one of the many dance elements that stands out in their floor rotation.
What is the easiest thing about commentary – something that is maybe the same from school to school — and the hardest thing about it, now that you’ve been at it for a while?
CC: The easiest thing about commentary is that it is so much fun! I often find myself pinching myself that someone is paying me to talk about gymnastics. I think because I love the sport so much, it feels very natural for me to talk about it and share that love with others.
The hardest thing about commentary is that there is so much going on and so much to keep track of. This issue is particularly relevant when it’s a quad meet and you are trying to cover four teams at once. For the bigger networks, like SEC, they have a larger production team that helps with stats, identifying athletes, etc., and the commentators will have people in their ears feeding them career highs, etc. For smaller networks that I usually commentate on (like ESPN+, BTN+, and school streams) there is a video production staff but not really content production. So I am compiling all of the stats, doing all the research on athletes, etc. beforehand, and then it’s up to me to keep up with that information during the broadcast.
I always want to give the athletes I am covering fair, researched analysis, regardless of where they are ranked nationally. So I prep all the teams I cover which is fun, but it is also a lot to manage and balance while your mic is hot.
What’s your dream commentary gig?
CC: Commentating NCAA regionals and/or nationals is a dream of mine. It’s one that I am working towards and fingers crossed I’ll be able to get there someday. Relatedly, I’d love to commentate with Kathy Johnson Clarke at some point.
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