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Claudia Fragapane was 16 years old when she bounced into the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 and swept the board with four gymnastics gold medals.
Fragapane’s breakthrough catapulted her into the limelight, leading to fame as a contestant on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing in 2016, and a bronze medal at the World Championships in Montreal the following year.
But Fragapane’s bubbly profile masked a confidence crisis – she had temporarily quit the sport after feeling “crushed” by failing to make a final at the Rio Olympics – and a series of career-threatening injuries.
“There were times when it felt like my body was giving up on me,” Fragapane, who is relishing her return to major competition at this month’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, told the PA news agency.
“There were some really difficult periods when I questioned myself. But I felt like I couldn’t let gymnastics go yet, and it is definitely going to be emotional when I step back out in the arena.”
Fragapane’s hopes of defending her Commonwealth Games titles on the Gold Coast in 2018 were ended by an Achilles injury, and she was also denied a place at the delayed Tokyo Olympics after suffering a serious concussion during a fall in training.
The Bristol star said doctors initially feared she could have been paralysed in the incident, and recalled a daunting recovery process from which she emerged with a fresh outlook on her sport and the remainder of her career.
“When they told me I could have been paralysed it was definitely a bit of a wake-up call to put my mental state first, and stop all the go-go-go 24/7, so I did take a step back,” said Fragapane.
“I was laid on my bed for hours, with tape wrapped all round my head. I couldn’t walk, and I couldn’t watch television or look at my phone because it just hurt my brain so much. It was such a long period of feeling so out of it.”
Fragapane’s tenacious recovery would be dealt another blow when a foot injury ruled her out of the subsequent World Championships in Japan. She required two operations, the first to insert two bolts and a plate in her ankle, and the second to have them removed. She also squeezed in keyhole surgery on her elbow.
But despite the setbacks, Fragapane is convinced she has emerged with a more healthy mindset, and will focus on enjoying her return in Birmingham – where she is expected to compete on floor and beam – rather than the win-at-all-costs mentality that swept her to glory in Glasgow.
“I don’t really let anything affect me now,” added Fragapane. “I’ve been so scared thinking this could be it, my life could change forever, and after that kind of wake-up call I’m just grateful to be out there competing.
“I’m not going to put too much pressure on myself. There’s new girls coming up who are getting the attention. They look at me as someone who’s been through it all and I’m happy to give them advice.
“But I’m still only 24 years old. I just want to get back to competing with my friends and get the adrenaline going again. This might be my last Commonwealth Games, so I am going to make the most of every minute.”