• Olympic focus

Francis hoping to bump into Bolt at London 2012

Jo Carter June 11, 2012
Getting To Know You: Danusia Francis

British gymnast Danusia Francis was only 11 when London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, but it was a pivotal moment.

"I remember it quite clearly," she told ESPN. "It was the summer holidays and I was in the car with my mum driving to the gym and we heard it on the radio. I always knew if I was going to go to the Olympics then I would be the right age for 2012."

Most aspiring Olympians have to make sacrifices, and Francis' came at a young age, leaving her family behind at the age of nine to move to London.

"A family friend ran an after-school gym club and I just used to go there with my brother and sister once a week for an hour and it was the best time of my life," she recalls.

"When I was seven I was in the young development squad and I used to train at the national centre with some other girls the same age. But when I was nine my gym was being shut down and that's when I had to really make the life-changing decision whether to move to London with a scholarship or not, so at nine it became really serious.

"Moving away from my family at the age of nine was the biggest sacrifice, but it has also been the best decision I have made so far."

English all-round champion in 2010 and two-time British beam champion, Francis recently celebrated her 18th birthday. While most 18-year-olds are stressing about exams, Francis has been juggling studying for her A-Levels with the small matter of qualifying for the Olympics - spending between 20 and 30 hours a week training.

Surrey Sports Park

  • Surrey Sports Park, located at The University of Surrey in Guildford is one of Europe's elite training facilities
  • It will host 16 Olympic and Paralympic teams pre-Games, including GB women's Basketball, Nigeria, Singapore, USA Triathlon and Chinese Synchronised Swimming
  • For further information go to www.surreysportspark.co.uk

Francis has grown up in the shadow of Britain's most successful gymnast Beth Tweddle, a three-time world champion and two-time Olympian, and Francis believes Tweddle has made gymnastics more accessible.

"Beth has done so much for British gymnastics, she is a household name now, people in the street know her," she said. "She has show that gymnastics is a sport that Britain can win medals at, as well as the normal ones like cycling and sailing.

"Having her out there makes the media more aware of us - she is such a good role model for us and the younger generations."

But even without Tweddle, British gymnastics is thriving. The men recently won team gold at the European Gymnastics Championships in France, and the likes of Beckie Downie and Hannah Whelan have enjoyed individual success on the world stage.

In the absence of Tweddle, who is recovering from knee surgery, the British women narrowly missed out on a medal at the European Championships.

"I was the second oldest on the team which was a bit different, because Beth Tweddle obviously wasn't competing nor were some of the other more senior girls, Imogen [Cairns] and Beckie, so it was nice to be a more experienced, senior member of the team and to help some of the younger ones, which helped me stay calm trying to keep them calm," Francis said.

"In the qualifying stages we had a perfect qualification and qualified third which was a surprise without our key member Beth Tweddle, and in the finals we came fourth which was a little bit disappointing - but we were still really pleased. But people know we are still a force without Beth, Imogen and Beckie."

Francis' biggest strength is also her weakness, and her impressive flexibility comes as a result of mobile joints, which can in turn, lead to injuries.

"I do get a lot of injuries - because my joints are so mobile I have to be really strong to keep up with it," she said. "Often my joints aren't strong enough and that has held me back quite a lot - I have had so many injuries over the years. My shoulder often partially slides out of its joint and the problem just keeps coming back."

Francis points to Nastia Liukin, the American gymnast who came back from an ankle injury to win all-round Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008, as her inspiration.

"She had a lot of knockbacks as a gymnast but then in 2008 people underestimated her but she came back to win the all-round title in Beijing."

Beyond London, Francis has secured a place at the University of California in Los Angeles on a sports scholarship.

"I'm just going to go out there soak up the experience," she said. "I don't think there is anything quite like going to university in America. When I went out there to visit it was exactly how I imagined everything - it is all on such a big scale. I'm so excited for the next four years. After that I think I will want to come back to England but who knows?"

But for now, she is fully focused on London, first on qualifying and then, all being well, her Olympic debut on home soil. Like most teenagers, Francis enjoys her lie-ins, but with the prospect of competing in the Olympics, she has more to get out of bed for than most.

"I don't find it easy getting up in the morning, but there is a goal and a dream I am working towards so that definitely helps me to get out of bed in the morning," she said.

And is there anyone she is hoping to meet in the athletes' village? "Who doesn't want to bump into Usain Bolt?"

Danusia Francis was speaking at the University of Surrey owned Surrey Sports Park, one of Europe's leading events and training venues. www.surreysportspark.co.uk

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk