Danusia Francis: "One of the top three days of my whole life was going to Usain Bolt's party"

Danusia Francis, representing Jamaica,  performs her floor routine during qualification at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships on October 04, 2019 in Stuttgart, Germany. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Danusia Francis, representing Jamaica, performs her floor routine during qualification at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships on October 04, 2019 in Stuttgart, Germany. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

The Brit-born Jamaica-representing artistic gymnast talks to Tokyo 2020 about partying with Usain Bolt, joining Simone Biles' post-Olympic tour and coming face-to-face, literally, with George Clooney. 

The tears that flowed from Danusia Francis after finally qualifying for Tokyo 2020, taking place in 2021, told the story. The 27-year-old artistic gymnast thought her Olympic moment had gone. She thought that performing a showcase beam routine at the London 2012 test event was as close as she was ever going to get to her dream of being an Olympian.

Yet even in this moment, just missing out on a place on the Team GB squad, she relished being able to perform on her favourite piece of apparatus in front of a huge home crowd, the spotlight trained on her.

The same year, Francis headed off to UCLA, an American university located, suitably enough, in California. It was here that the Brit found her love of gymnastics again after the hard graft of trying to qualify for an Olympic Games. She even scored a perfect 10.

Honing her love of performing, and developing that side of her personality, encouraged Francis to think once again of international competition but being so far from the UK training camp now, Francis looked to other options. With both Polish and Jamaican heritage, Francis opted to gain citizenship for the Caribbean isle due to her love of the charisma of talisman Usain Bolt, the small island's large impact on the world athletics scene, and with an idea to improve the profile of gymnastics in the country.

So Jamaica it was, and after competing for the nation at the 2015 worlds in which she qualified for Rio 2016, Jamaica opted to take different gymnasts, so Francis missed out on Olympics number two by the smallest of margins.

On graduating from UCLA in 2016 , Francis retired from gymnastics, a natural thing to do for college gymnasts. She was having a great time, until about a year and a half into her retirement lots of people randomly asked her if she was going to do a comeback, and aim for the next Olympics.

Francis laughed initially. ‘No,’ she thought, ‘Why would I? I’m enjoying my retirement.’ Pretty soon though, it turned the other way. ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ she thought.

Francis on... her early years

“I started gymnastics when I was five, and when I was six years old, I saw my first Olympics, which was Sydney 2000, and I was like, that's what I want to do. Obviously, at that time, I was very young, I didn't really know if I had the potential but I went through the ranks in GB and was on the national squad at the age of nine – in young development squads and stuff like that. My mum knew I had the potential when I was getting these results and she just has always been my biggest supporter."

"When I was nine, the gym that I was training at was just local, but it was in a university and they were going to demolish it and make it into a car park. So that was when I had to kind of make a decision to go to one of the bigger clubs at that point because I was kind of outgrowing that club at that point as well. So I went to a trial at Heathrow (Gymnastics Club) and I absolutely loved it. They had seen me at a competition a couple of years before and approached my mum about me having a gymnastics scholarship, so that fell into place. I started at boarding school and I competed for GB.”

Francis on... qualifying for Tokyo 2020

“The more I thought about it, the more I felt like I did actually still have that flame inside me that wanted to reach that ultimate goal I had as a young child of going to the Olympics, but at the same time, having kind of almost reached it, it's quite scary to almost put yourself in that position again, to maybe again come this close or to maybe fail again. So it was quite scary.”

It's quite scary to almost put yourself in that position again, to maybe again come this close or to maybe fail again.

“So I went first to a Commonwealth Games, that was my first goal and I was going to build from there, but in 2018 for the Commonwealth Games, Jamaica only wanted to take one gymnast so they took a male gymnast, and obviously I'd been in retirement so I couldn't expect them to take me above him by any means… but obviously, at the same time, it would have been nice if they could have taken females as well. But I think it was probably a financial decision or something along those lines.

"But then, at that point, that first goal that had been my stepping stone to maybe deciding about Tokyo, was gone. So I just had to make that decision there and then. I was going into the gym as normal, we knew that the Commonwealth wasn't going to be a thing, and my coach was like, okay so what's next? And saying out loud (that I was going to try for Tokyo) was the first step for me. And it was scary because like I said, it's like I've come this close and it was just something that I've always really wanted. But then once I said it out loud, I was able to put that as my goal and put it out there in the universe, I was just quite determined to reach it. And, yeah, I made it happen in the end.”

Francis on... friendship in Tokyo

Francis qualified for Tokyo 2020 via the artistic gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany in 2019, and will compete in a mixed group of gymnasts along with those who have also qualified via an individual place for their countries.

"We get to train together and it will be really nice to bond with the other girls and just be able to support each other and be a little team within our mixed group. So hopefully, as the week progresses and we get to know each other's routines and stuff, we can support each other through, and cheer each other on.

"Social media has its pros and cons but I think a really big pro, is everyone becomes closer as friends because you can interact not just when you see them in person at these competitions, but you support each other by following each other and writing comments. Then when you see them in real life, you've already got a bit of a bond, so that automatically breaks the ice. So I think that's a great thing with social media.

"I think as well in a mixed group, as much as obviously everyone's going to be doing their best gymnastics, we're not in that... fight for those medals. I'm not saying that there's going to be no medals from individuals, but we're probably more there just to take in the experience and enjoy it. And so I'm excited to be amongst that. It is a dream come true for a lot of us at that level where the Olympics and just being there is going to just be a celebration of all of the hard work."

It is a dream come true for a lot of us at that level where the Olympics and just being there is going to just be a celebration of all of the hard work."

Francis on... Biles’ Gold Over America Tour

Simone Biles is curating a Gold Over America Tour at the conclusion of the Tokyo Games and Francis has been invited to join the showpiece event.

"Such a pinch-me moment when I got invited. I was just like, 'who me? Are you sure you've got the right person?' Because at the moment it's all American-based people. I think they are adding more people but, yes, to be the only international one on the list at the moment, it's just such an honour. And I know, I'm not one of the best in the world but I kind of have put my stamp on the gymnastics world with my innovation and personality kind of thing. So to get that recognition from the queen herself. I hope I can do her justice and live up to the expectations."

Francis on... feeling heartbroken for the Downie sisters

Francis talks about her former GB teammates and friends, Becky and Ellie Downie, and the loss of their brother the day before the final Olympic trial. Ellie opted to take time away from the sport, while Becky took up the option to take part in a delayed trial. We spoke to Francis before it was known the Becky had not made the team.

"Their situation is absolutely heart-wrenching. It's not been easy on anyone, these Olympic trials in this build-up, it's been obviously a pandemic, and then obviously the trials have been unusual, and a lot of the GB trials have been behind closed doors, which isn't really sort of transparent. And I don't know if it's been the best for certain people… So then to try to be your best and especially as they're both Olympic medal contenders, not just sort of going there to tick a box.

"So they’re already dealing with a lot like we all are. And then to be at your final Olympic trials the night before and to get that news, I just can't even imagine that. Absolutely devastating. Heartbreaking. Yeah. And then for them to, like you said, make these different decisions, I think that just shows that strength in both of their characters because obviously Ellie's giving up a lot in not doing it and it's not like you get another chance next year, is obviously three years this time, but still a long time. And then, see Becky then deciding to train during this time of grief and everything else – I can't imagine how hard that is. And it's not like she's just doing easy gymnastics. She's doing one of the hardest bar routines in the world.

"To then just this one trial that she's got to do alone in a sports centre with all these eyes on her and not, and like just Ellie there for support and her coach and stuff, but not like a crowd of people behind you giving you that extra bit of adrenaline and energy that you might want. And she said to me on that day when she sort of arrived at that sports centre, she realised that a) what she was doing like this is her Olympic trials, potentially her last Olympics, and also why she was there on her own because her brother had passed away and it just suddenly hit her. And obviously, we all know everyone deals with grief in a different way. So I just can't imagine that feeling like hitting you and again. But the importance of why you're there and then why you're on your own. And so she just said she couldn't stop sobbing. So not only is that completely difficult to do gymnastics while you're sobbing but the emotional drain on you and the energy that would have taken.

"Just how strong she is, is just so admirable and inspirational. And yeah, I just know that Josh is looking down on her and cheering her on."

Francis on... going to Usain Bolt's party

“That is literally one of the top three days of my whole life. So me, my sister and a couple of my friends, we got to go (Usain Bolt’s birthday party). He knew who I was because I was speaking to one of his friends on the track and field team, and so that that's how I got invited. So he knew that I competed for Jamaica. I didn't realise starstruck was a genuine feeling until I met Usain Bolt. I was genuinely like hyperventilating.

"And then my sister was like completely chilled and went over to him and was talking to him like they were long-lost friends. And he thought that she was me and they were chatting and chatting and she said, oh, no, actually, my sister's the gymnast. And she's like, come over. And I was like ‘Oh, my God. Oh, God. How she just acting so normal with Usain Bolt?’ But he was so, so cool and we were literally on his table and he was taking videos on my phone. Dancing. Singing. Yeah, everything you imagine he would be he is that and more and just one of the coolest people ever."

Francis on... stunt work with George Clooney

“(Doing stunt work is) quite exciting and you get that same pressure on you to perform and that adrenaline when you're on set and then seeing your name in the credits is really cool too. George Clooney was in The Midnight Sky, and he directed it as well. He was showing my co-worker, who was one of the other doubles, just how he wanted one of the scenes, and so it was me and him doing the scene, setting it up. And so George was telling him, you need to get close, you need to get closer, so George Clooney put his face this close to mine for like 10 seconds. And I was like, ‘my God, I don't really know what to do right now’, just trying to act normal like this happens every day. He was actually really, really lovely every day on set and made all of us feel very welcome.

"And also as a stunt double, when you're rehearsing, you have to – when you're showing the producers and stuff – you have to act the scene out as well just to give them a better idea of how it would look when the actors do it. So I had to act in front of George Clooney and to throw up and do this scene, and I was like oh, my gosh, this is kind of embarrassing but I'll give it a shot. And then he was like, ‘good job throwing up', I was like, 'yes!', I'll have that on my gravestone. And not only did I throw up, we're in space, so I'm dangling in a harness and I'm throwing up, so it's quite a skill. Yes, this is my life right now. I'm in a gigantic wooden spaceship at Shepperton Studios and George Clooney's about to watch me dangling sideways, throw up and then glide into my spacesuit. So strange. But that's what I live for, honestly."

Danusia also appeared in Wonderwoman as an Amazon stunt person too.

"I would absolutely love to do (Cirque du Soleil), but I'm about to get married. I'm kind of settled in London, so I wouldn't want to be travelling or I wouldn't want to go and live in Vegas or China or where any of the other shows are, so that's the only reason that I can't imagine doing it. But if they brought one to London sign me up!"

Hear Danusia Francis talk about what it's like to compete on beam, a nervy apparatus for many, in our Bluffer's Guide to Artistic Gymnastics series.