Even for the rare competitors who progress seamlessly throughout their careers, gymnastics is an unfathomably difficult sport. It pounds down on muscles and joints, it requires singular focus for success and because there are so few major meetings four years of unbridled discipline can be undone with a misjudgment by a millimetre or less.
Over the past 15 years, even by the standards of most gymnasts, Becky Downie has not had it easy. Since her debut in 2006, when she started as an all-around gymnast, she has established herself as one of the best uneven bars performers.
Over the years, she has combined enormous release elements, including a skill that is named after her, with solid form and rapid connections. She is also incredibly adaptable: Downie has navigated five different code of points in her career, meaning she has had to constantly adapt her routines in an event that is now unrecognisable from 2006 and she retains one of the most difficult routines in the world.
For a large amount of that time, her presence on the biggest stages often ended in disappointment. She was a talented uneven bars worker for a while but during the first half of her career she would sometimes struggle to perform in the biggest events and she suffered some major injuries at the most inopportune moments. In a moment that would come to define her career and her goals she was not chosen for London 2012.
Resilience has always closely accompanied devastation for Downie. After the frustration of missing out on a home Olympics she returned with a renewed fire and a determination to prove her worth. She won the uneven bars at the European championships in 2014 and again two years later.
Between those two wins came numerous notable medals and achievements, including leading her team to a bronze medal at the 2015 world championships.
In 2019, she retooled in order to battle with the world. She finished with a long-awaited silver, her first individual world medal.
As Downie prepared for the Olympic trials this year, and potentially the end of her career at 29, she was struck by life-changing news. In May, her brother, Josh, died while playing cricket. Downie learned of the news on the eve of her final Olympic trial in Cardiff and she returned home to her family.
Just a few days after her bereavement, Downie made the decision to resume training and finish the journey she started. After negotiating with British Gymnastics, Downie completed her second trial on her own in an empty sports hall. After one routine, she landed her dismount and then broke down in tears.
Despite being the world silver medallist, a clear individual medal hope and part of the highest scoring team based on Olympic trials scores, Downie was not chosen. Outrage followed from fans, the media and from herself and her sister, Ellie, who questioned whether the pair recently speaking out against British Gymnastics officials had something to do with the omission.
British Gymnastics said the decision was due to them prioritising the team competition in Tokyo, which only added insult to injury. That called into question the need for Downie to return to complete the process during a bereavement if she already did not fit their parameters – their failure to communicate that much earlier cost her the chance to seek an individual place in Tokyo.
After all that pain, Downie kept on going. Although the Games were moved to this year, the date of the world championships in Kitakyushu, Japan remained two months later, offering Downie and others who did not fulfil their Olympic dreams another chance.
She continued to train, even during the Olympics, and committed to Kitakyushu.
After Friday’s podium training, where she fell on her eponymous release skill in an otherwise well-executed routine, she told Gymnastic: “It’s been a really hard process just to get here. Even last week, it was like: ‘Is Becky going to get on the flight?’ kind of thing. So I’m just pleased that I’ve pushed through.”
This will not be the same, not even as other world championships. Many of the top gymnasts who competed in Tokyo chose not to make themselves available due to the need to recover fully, mentally and physically. The relatively depleted field means a huge opportunity for the elite athletes such as Downie, but also that victory will not have the sheen of a typical world championships, with all the best gymnasts around.
But none of that seems to matter to Downie. She is there to perform at her best and try to win a medal, but more important and moving than mere results is her resilience through such a difficult period in her life.
It was already a tough old career even before this spring and the past few months have been unimaginable, but she knows what she wants and she is there once again to try to achieve her goals.