Jessica and Jennifer Gadirova, the teenage British twins starring in artistic gymnastics at Tokyo 2020

The 16-year-old siblings, who are part of the four-person British women's team who won an historic bronze medal in Japan, talked to Tokyo 2020 ahead of the Games about waiting for The Call, their love of dance and how a little independence from each other is a good thing... but not too much.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Waiting for your own call to find out if you have secured one of four spots available on the Team GB women's artistic gymnastics squad at Tokyo 2020, taking place in 2021, is bad enough. Waiting an additional 20 minutes to see if your twin sister has made it too, takes a different kind of patience.

“I received my news first,” explained Jess on a video call to Tokyo 2020 on the day the women's team was officially announced (30 May). “We were excited for me but still a bit nervous to hear Jen’s news, but as soon as we heard hers we were all in tears and just everyone was so excited.”

“I heard her news and I was so happy," said Jen, "but then, like, I don't want to get my hopes up – would I get in? – but then as soon as I had the phone call, I was just like, we’ve done it together.”

During the lull between calls, the 16-year-olds just tried to keep themselves occupied.

“We were talking about her,” continued Jen, “and just trying to pass time as quickly as possible. It did go quite fast though. It was hard, it was like slow and then fast because we're here now.”

The teenagers were allowed to tell close family but not their friends, so have waited two weeks until today to be able to tell their mates and the rest of their family.

“It was so hard to keep it to ourselves,” said Jen, “and the day is finally coming and everyone will know.”

Family affair

Jen and Jess, who train at Aylesbury Gymnastics Academy, will join teammates Alice Kinsella and Amelie Morgan when they head to Japan next month for the artistic gymnastics competition, which starts 24 July 2021.

Morgan is also a twin, along with brother Fin, also a gymnast, so she can imagine what an amazing experience the sisters will have together in Japan.

“Knowing how close they are, like I am to my brother, and how nice it is to have someone like a twin that you can share this with, I am so happy that they get to share the experience together.”

The Gadirova's coaches are also a brother and sister combination. Molly and Joshua Richardson have nurtured the sisters from an early age to the world powerhouses they are on the brink of becoming now. The pair are much appreciated by the sisters: "They put so much time and effort in helping me to be where I am today," Jen told Inside Gymnastics magazine in July 2019. "[It’s] big and little things that they do for me and my sister that…I appreciate so much. I wouldn’t want to be at any other club and have any other coaches in the world."

Emerging stars

The twins have been on the radar of many a British gymnastics fan for a while now. Former GB gymnast, now competing for Jamaica, Danusia Francis, noticed the talent of Jess and Jen early on.

“I think that they have that wow factor, that performance factor that we haven't seen for a long time within GB,” Francis told Tokyo 2020 last month. “I'd say, not to put any of the gymnasts down, they're all incredible, but they've just got that level of performance, which I think takes them to that world-class level. And yeah, I think their technique on every skill they do is well taught and their executions are brilliant.

"Their leaps on floor are just something else. They have this extra lift, which is incredible. And yeah, like I said, with their dance, they show off every single dance move and it's just really exciting to see. And there’s two of them!’

With their dance, they show off every single dance move and it's just really exciting to see... and there’s two of them!

Renowned for their expressive floor routines combined with full extension on high leaps and difficult tumbling passes, Francis confirms they’ve always stood out in the British gymnastics scene. “They've always been like that. I don't think you can teach that. I was choreographing the England squad when they were still in the England squad and I remember I'd teach it and then turn and watch the girls and you can't take your eyes off them because they just have that X factor.

“After the European Championships, someone posted a video from when Jess was really young, like seven or nine, and you could see in that just how amazing of a performer she was. So, yeah, it's just a really, really natural thing. I don't think you can teach that. You can teach people to get better at it, but that natural ability, I think, is just very innate and they've both got it.”

In recent times, artistry has become more important in the floor exercise and the Gaidrovas have taken advantage of their natural ability. Gymnasts are encouraged to engage with the judges and perform tricky spins and leaps flawlessly. If you perform a triple spin but don’t control the finish, for example, you’ll be deducted marks. The Gadirovas are very much the future of where gymnastics is headed, particularly on floor.

“You get artistry deductions now, quite a lot,” agreed Jess, “so you want to try and look beautiful while you’re doing your dance. You just want to try and engage the judges into your performance so they feel that energy from you and they focus on you and probably not your performance because if I’m looking at you with a good facial expression you’ll want to look at my face and not really what I’m doing so it kind of distracts them a little bit. But then you just want to be nice so they don’t take too many deductions off your performance. You feel like they’re enjoying watching what you’re performing and not just thinking, ‘oh she’s doing her routine, it’s just the same old routine’ but when you include them in your performance you want to make them feel like they enjoy it.”

The talent is natural, as Francis says, as the sisters have had virtually no specific dance training.

“We did ballet when we were like six,” said Jess, “but it wasn’t too long to actually pick up anything from it. I think generally we just naturally had that ability to dance, the coordination of doing it and so we didn’t really do too much of ballet or dance, we just focused on the gymnastics. When we were younger we always loved to dance whenever it was Christmas time we’d always ask our parents for the Just Dance games and we’d do it 24-7, and dance, and dance until we couldn’t do it any more.”

Dance came to their rescue during lockdown too, as the duo kept themsevles busy at home doing dance programmes in their attic room. “Some people found it hard to keep themselves distracted (during lockdown)," said Jen, “and doing (a dance routine) every week was just something new and interesting and just fun to do.”

Azerbaijani heritage

The twins have Azerbaijani heritage, courtesy of their parents who are both from the former Soviet republic. “In 2001, we moved to London," their father Natig Gadirov told Azerbaijani website Haqqin.az in April, which was translated by gymnastics blog Gymnovosti. "And in 2004, we moved to Dublin for a few months for work. As a result, the girls now have both Irish and British citizenships. And I’m a citizen of Azerbaijan.”

Gadirov speaks Russian, English and Azerbaijani but the girls say they can only speak a few words of Russian, and wouldn’t be able to engage for very long with competitors such as Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova, an established gymnast who Jess beat to the gold medal on floor at last month’s European Championships.

The gold medal was the culmination of quite the senior international debut for Jessica, which began with a nasty fall on beam in the qualifying competition. In one of those breath-stopping moments, Jess showed her maturity in taking a second to make sure she wasn't injured before composing herself and stepping up to complete the routine.

From then on, she was flawless, winning an amazing bronze medal in the all-around competition behind the Russian pair of Melnikova, silver, and newcomer and another 16-year-old, Viktoria Listunova. It was the first time any female British gymnast has won an individual all-around medal since Ellie Downie won gold in 2017.

Jess then followed up with silver on vault and that precious gold on floor. Amusingly, Jess was so busy making heart-shapes with her hands towards the camera, she didn’t realise she’d won (see the video until the end below). Once she had realised, it appears she turns around to hug someone, likely that sister of hers, but there was no one there.

Jen, meanwhile, was watching on from home, nursing a slight injury otherwise she would have been with her sibling.

“I saw her routine and I was so happy,” said Jen. “I was like, ‘that's the best thing she's ever done, I wonder what colour (medal) it would be’. So then just seeing her score come up and it just saying one, I was just like, I had no words. I was so shocked and so happy. And then I was like on the phone, and then to hear them like scream and shout in happiness just made me burst into tears.”

Jen also had her debut wow moment at the American Cup in Wisconsin in 2020 with gymnasts from all nations lauding her special floor routine.

“Originally I wasn't going to America,” said Jen, “but then when I found out the news, I was just so excited and shocked, I couldn't wait until I get there. And once I was there I just wanted to do the best performance I could do, which I did, and I was just so happy. And then I did it like in the arena with so many big names like Morgan Hurd and Ellie Black, I was so starstruck, but kept my cool and just did what I needed to do.”

Starstruck

Talking of starstruck, the girls admire one certain Simone Biles, winner of five Olympic medals, four gold and one bronze, 19 world championship gold medals, and all round legend of the sport.

“She's just won everything,” said Jess. “She's like the biggest thing you'll ever know in gymnastics. Just seeing her there (at the Olympics) would be so shocking, just like we see her on the TV and we'll just be like statues, silent, just like 'oh my god' whispering to each other. We'll be so shocked.”

“Not many people can say they competed with Simone, which is such a big thing in itself,” agreed Jen.

The indomitable Biles recently wowed the gymnastics world with a vault called the double pike Yurchenko, the first time a woman has ever competed the vault and which is so difficult that not many men do it. The Gadirovas, as good as they are, don’t see themselves trying it any time soon.

“We have tried a triple back into the pit once and that was a bit scary,” said Jess, “so we haven't tried that since then. Maybe in the future, but it's not in my mind at the moment.”

“I feel like it's such a big skill,” agreed Jen, “and I feel like we are still growing and developing more skills so I feel like maybe in the future it might be a consideration, but at the moment, not yet.”

It was probably an unexpected experience for them both to have made their senior international debuts without each other by their side, but they also recognise it was also good experience for the future.

“We do spend every second with each other, so it is different when we are apart,” said Jen. “But I feel like sometimes we do need that independence from each other and just focus on ourselves without her always being right by my side. We are individuals at the end of the day, so we do enjoy having our time apart but not if it's too long until we see each other again.”

The artistic gymnastics competition at Tokyo 2020 started on 24 July 2021, and finishes Tues 3 August.