Ellie Downie has revealed her retirement from gymnastics aged 23 was the culmination of a three-year period that left the Olympian feeling “like a shell” of her former self.
On Monday, Downie tweeted she was leaving the sport that had consumed her life since she was three “to prioritise (her) mental health and happiness” as a result of “mind games” played by British Gymnastics officials.
Downie and gymnast sister Becky, 30, went public in July 2020 with allegations of an “environment of fear and mental abuse” at elite levels in their sport, a decision she has speculated might explain her omission from subsequent squads.
The Rio 2016 Olympian, speaking on Dr Alex George’s Stompcast, said the final straw came after she was named as a reserve for the women’s team at the 2022 World Championships, despite meeting what she claims were the selection requirements.
“I just felt, am I ever going to make a team again? I don’t feel like I am,” she told George. “I still feel like I’m being penalised for what happened, which would have been two years beforehand. My mental state after that was low. I felt pretty worthless.
“For me it just felt like constant mental games. It was like they were trying to wear me out, and ultimately it did.
“I literally didn’t get out of bed for, like, three days. I didn’t train. I just felt mentally battered. I just didn’t know what direction I was going to go in. My life felt really out of control. Like, they 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?
“I didn’t train for a while, I just felt like absolute rubbish. I had no motivation. 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.”
Downie’s other claims include that David Kenwright, British Gymnastics’ women’s artistic gymnastics national head coach, warned a physio that he should “be careful working so closely with (the Downies), they tried to take the organisation down so they might try to take you down”.
She also alleges Kenwright sent an email to the team – which did not include Downie – after the World Championships “that kind of said we finally put the naysayers to rest… and we’ve got revenge from all of the stuff that’s been said about gymnastics”.
The PA news agency has contacted British Gymnastics for comment.
A statement posted on its website read: “(Ellie has) raised issues in her retirement podcast that we are already aware of and are being addressed, particularly around the conduct and communication of a member of our coaching team. As part of the wide reform of gymnastics being undertaken, we must ensure appropriate behaviours and attitudes are maintained and always reinforced.
“Ellie references an email that was sent following the World Championships which did not meet our standards or reflect our values as an organisation. Our performance director immediately sent correspondence to recipients outlining that some of the language and tone was unacceptable and not in line with our culture and commitment to reform. A subsequent discipline and education process took place and this is being monitored as an ongoing process.”
Downie retires as one of Britain’s most decorated gymnasts with 12 senior medals, including Great Britain’s first major all-around gold at the 2017 European Championships.
The Downies were not alone in calling out unsavoury practice within their sport. In July, British Gymnastics’ shortcomings were laid bare in the damning 306-page Whyte Review, which drew on over 400 testimonies to reveal instances of abuse and systemic failures of governance.
Downie eventually sought help from a therapist and found herself weeping uncontrollably after her first session. She would later explain to her father it had nothing to do with the sudden death of her 24-year-old cricketer brother Josh – which led to her taking a break from gymnastics – but with the sport.
She added: “After my brother passed it really made me flip a switch in my head, because you just can’t keep going if you’re unhappy.”
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