After never giving up on her Olympic dream, gymnast Danusia Francis heads to Tokyo hoping to help empower others

"We won't stand for abuse... that's not the way it should be," says Francis, in an exclusive interview that also covers her aims for the Games and being a stunt double in Wonder Woman.

By Scott Bregman

Danusia Francis has dreamt of going to the Olympics since she was six years old, watching the Sydney 2000 Games on TV. Russian Elena Zamolodchikova, the two-time Olympic gold medallist, captured her attention and launched a dream.

“I don't know why that performance was always stuck in my mind,” Francis, who once represented Great Britain but now competes for Jamaica, told Olympic Channel last week. “I think it was just seeing her being so confident and just at the top of her game.

“I just wanted that feeling to know that you were up there with the best of the best at the top of your sport.”

Francis earned that opportunity at last year’s World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, though it still hasn’t quite registered.

“I think it won't fully sink in until I'm out there in Tokyo, seeing the [Olympic Games] signs everywhere, and training. That will be like the 'pinch me' moment, like I have actually done it.”- Danusia Francis to Olympic Channel

Qualification came at the third attempt, after Francis served as an alternate to the British team in 2012 and a controversial decision by Jamaica Gymnastics kept her out of Rio 2016. But she was undeterred, finding new perspective and new motivations during her time as the University of California-Los Angeles.

“I felt like it was all just completely on my own terms,” says Francis of her third push to the Games. “I've been sort of living the adult life alongside it, but knowing exactly what it would take for me to achieve it. So, yeah, third time around, third lucky.”

Francis spoke to Olympic Channel from her home in Britain, covering her Tokyo 2020 qualification, COVID-19 complications, empowering gymnasts to speak up, and her life as a stunt double. The following transcript was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Olympic Channel: Last time we spoke, you were very emotional in the mixed [interview] zone at the World Championships. It wasn’t official yet, but it looked very good that you were qualified to Tokyo. So, take us back to that moment. what was going through your head?

Danusia Francis: Like you said, it wasn't official at that point, but I knew I'd sort of done my job. I've done everything I could. So even if I didn't make it, it was like I left it all on the floor. I've done the best I could. Obviously, there were small mistakes, I didn't have any falls or anything. That was obviously the aim, and then to qualify was the cherry on top but obviously also the goal. So, yeah, just a lot of relief and happiness and then obviously just hopeful that it was enough.

OC: You were headed off to vacation, to kind of await the result, so what was it like when you got the official notification?

DF: I think it was quite surreal, actually, because I was away from it all, which was the plan, because, obviously, if I'd gone the other way, I would be quite sad and I wouldn’t want to be surrounded by all of that… of the people that would've been happy to have made it. So you just kind of want to take yourself out of the situation. But it was hard to do that because I was getting floods of texts and calls and everything, getting congratulated, which was amazing. I think it won't fully sink in until I'm out there in Tokyo, seeing the [Olympic Games] signs everywhere, and training. That will be like the 'pinch me' moment, like I have actually done it.

OC: This is the third Olympic cycle that you've been doing for the Games. What about the Olympics is so special to you that you've just never given up on that dream.

DF: I always remember being about 6 years old and seeing the 2000 Olympics. The performance that stands out to me is Elena Zamolodchikova and finishing her floor routine, which [she] did this little gun, and then she did the blow. I don't know why that performance was always stuck in my mind. I think it was just seeing her being so confident at it, and just at the top of her game. I just wanted that feeling, to know that you were just sort of up there with the best-of-the-best at the top of your sport, hopefully, at your peak and just enjoying it, too. And that, I think, is what stuck out in her performance, in particular was just how she owned it and owned her moment.

OC: There were so many moments when you were really close to achieving this dream prior to 2019. How did you push to those moments where perhaps you thought this wasn’t going to happen?

DF: Well, before 2012, I always thought that I would just stop gymnastics whether I made it [to London] or not because it was kind of like the year I was turning 18, becoming an adult. Then, I would just go off and live this adult life, but then the opportunity of going to UCLA came up. That was the perfect way to have a new goal and a new dream within gymnastics.

The NCAA route was just so perfect for me and that definitely reignited my passion for the sport. It made me want to do more international competitions.

Then with competing for Jamaica, it obviously then allowed me to do the World Championships in 2015. The goal of 2016 wasn't really in my mind. I just wanted to compete internationally for Jamaica, so then actually qualifying for the [Rio 2016] Test Event and then it becoming a whole real thing again. I was so excited, like, ‘Wow, like maybe this is meant to be. I am supposed to do the Olympics, like I've always wanted to.”

Then, again, it was sort of taken away from me.

But this time around [with Tokyo], I felt like it was all just completely on my own terms. I've been sort of living the adult life alongside it, but knowing exactly what it would take for me to achieve it. Third time around, third time lucky.

OC: What about your college gymnastics experience helped you regain that desire for international competition?

DF: For me, it wasn't that I sort of had any psychological or emotional scars from my club gymnastics. I had an amazing club, have an amazing club, I'm still there. I love my coaches.

The thing that I think was perfect for me was being out of the 'perfect 10' [scoring system]. And it was like you weren't under that pressure to constantly add more bonus, more connections, and keep chasing these skills all the time. It was more that you had the chance to stand out, do your gymnastics to the best of your ability, and really just show off the best competitor and gymnast you could be. So I think that was why I was able to sort of step into my own, and I definitely felt like I became the best gymnast I could be and the best competitor I could be.

I think UCLA was the perfect fit for me. The way the coaches just coached us to be performers rather than, oh, you're in a competition. It was to sell it, to show off, to, like I said, be the best you can be. So all of that just was perfect for me and my sort of style of gymnastics and allowed me to really just flourish.

OC: Take us back to February and March, and what life was like as coronavirus was becoming a part of our daily life, and how was your training was affected at that point?

DF: February, March… I was just gearing up to get into more competitions. I was in the Serie A and, then, planning on doing the Spanish league, as well.

I was hanging on some like just aches and pains, not like full on injuries. But I thought at this point I was just going to have to put up with them all the way through to Tokyo. So that's been a silver lining definitely of lockdown that that's completely healed, and I feel really good with my body now.

Then, we went lockdown, Zoom took over my life. It was definitely Zoom training and Zoom coaching 24/7. But it was very effective, honestly. Just being able to concentrate on small details and obviously healing my body. I was also able to focus on small things that you don't really put into your everyday training. Just things that might be more like an afterthought where it's like my right toe doesn't point as much my left. So I was concentrating on little details that you just won't really think about.

It was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, just going forward and thinking were the Olympics happening or not? But once I was able to think of the positives, which there definitely are quite a few, I was able to shift my mindset.

Then, when it came round to July and the day we were supposed to be leaving [for the Olympics], I got a bit emotional, but I think you have to put it into perspective. It’s much bigger than just the Olympics at this point, it's a huge world pandemic.

OC: When did you get back into full training and where do you think you are right now?

DF: We got back to training on July 25th, and I've got all my skills back now. I’m keeping the numbers really low at the moment and, then, obviously once I sort of know when I have competitions, I'll get more endurance and stamina and stuff like that up.

I’m going to be choreographing a floor routine soon. I'm excited for that and then [the extra year] actually gave me the chance to try a few new moves, just skills I just thought I'd never even get the chance to try. So that's also been another thing that's keeping me motivated now and another silver lining of the delay.

OC: What are you most looking forward to about the Olympics?

DF: Oh, gosh, that's a good question. I think for me, I'm in like a slightly different boat to a lot of gymnasts or a lot athletes that are there in that I completely know my potential and I'm going completely for the experience. It's just like the cherry on top of my entire career. I just hope that I can just soak in every moment. I've had the same coach since I was nine years old, and he's watched me over the years as I tried to go to the same dream three times. His belief and my other coaches and my family's belief has never wavered in me. I think it's just going to be something that I really want to just take in the moment.

Danusia Francis performs her floor routine during qualification during the 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

OC: You’ve also had the opportunity to do some stunt work. What has that been like?

DF: That's been really cool. That's the other thing that's been great about sort of coming back to gymnastics, it's just opened so many doors and opportunities such as stunts. It's really, really different. I didn't see myself doing stunts, but when I got the opportunity, it's been a really cool world to get into. I definitely see myself doing a bit more down the line.

[My most recent job,] I was just doing was a series for Apple TV. It was a really cool experience, and the people I got to work with are already well-known in the business, so I just learnt a lot from them. Hopefully, I can do some more jobs with them in stunts down the line.

OC: What kinds of things are you doing on set? Is it mostly gymnastics or something different?

DF: So, so far my stunts have been not like super gymnastic-y. It's not on the normal gymnastics equipment. But I doubled in ‘Wonder Woman,’ the one that comes out in [December 2020]. That was pretty cool, it was like a really high up stunt. There was kind of like bars-ish, but different.

I did another one that'll be on Netflix, a movie and that was in space. So that was all in a harness and that was really cool. I did a little bit of harness stuff in gymnastics, but it was very different from that, even just the shape of the harness. You really have to get your core and your center of gravity right. But I think most gymnasts including myself, it's quite a natural thing.

The hardest part for me was not like finishing everything like a gymnast, like I had to try and slow it down like I was in space.

OC: Earlier, you mentioned the fact that you've had a positive experience with your coaches. Unfortunately, we know that hasn't been the case for a lot of women. Tell me about your involvement with the gymnast alliance.

DF: I think when ‘Athlete A’ came out, we just sort of heard rumours that different people were going to talk to the media about their experience, and that just got me and a lot of my ex-GB teammates talking and a lot of them weren't sort of ready to speak about their personal experience.

It was definitely Jenny Pinches that came up with the idea to have this [social media] post that we all just share and just show that we won't stand for abuse, that that's not the way it should be. No one should have to tolerate that to achieve their goals. So, it began just as a solidarity social media post. I don't think any of us expected it to sort of go as far as it has. But it's amazing that it's sort of given so many people the courage to speak up and raise awareness that no one will tolerate abuse any longer. I think it obviously shows anyone that is going through something like that now that they're not suffering alone and that they don't have to suffer.

I've been able to achieve my personal goals with a really healthy and happy training regime my entire career, so I hope that I can be an example that you can achieve your personal goals with a happy and healthy approach. At the moment it's about giving that platform to those who have had these negative experiences, but I hope we can also show the good side [of gymnastics] and what we can do to bring it to everybody around the world, and that [in future] everyone can have a positive experience.

OC: How important do you think creating that public support has been, especially when many athletes may be afraid to come forward?

DF: I think it's really important that people like me that feel like they don't have things that can maybe be taken away or I don't know… that we can’t be threatened? I don't know exactly how the girls are feeling in those positions, but I can imagine that there is pressure or there's a pressure that maybe they won't make the team if they talk out, or you never know the criticism you're gonna get for saying things on social media, so it's definitely a bit daunting for everybody. But if it's something you believe in, then I think it's important that you do stand up.

We have heard a lot from Becky and Ellie Downie – I'd say that they are the two that have the most to lose that have showed their solidarity with the gymnast alliance – so I have a massive respect for those two and what they've said on social media.