Finals day at the Echo Arena, venue for this weekend’s British Gymnastics Championships, will feature a high-wattage cast – and not just on the four pieces of apparatus.
“Most of the Strictly Come Dancing people are coming to finals so hopefully I make it to Sunday,” said Claudia Fragapane, defending champion in the all-around category. “Daisy Lowe and Ore [Oduba, who was one of the three dancers to outlast her in the competition]: all those people. It will be really good.”
Step by graceful step, gymnastics has developed into one of Britain’s most buoyant sports, scoring TV ratings of close to two million for the 2015 World Championships in Glasgow. But the sheer clout of Strictly Come Dancing (10 million viewers, on a slow night) means that Fragapane is now less well known for her four Commonwealth gold medals than for jiving to Hey Mickey.
Throughout her three-month run, Fragapane’s fresh-faced, low-slung partnership with professional dancer A J Pritchard became an essential feature of Saturday nights. So when she takes to the floor at Liverpool, she plans to blend her gigantic tumbles with some artistic footwork that Strictly obsessives will recognise, including the Lion King dance from movie week.
“I’ve got Argentine tango, I’ve got Charleston, a little bit of everything,” said Fragapane, who has decided to skip the all-around this year and focus on her strongest pieces: the floor and the beam. “I wanted to put it in for the British Championships, because I think everyone’s watched Strictly and they really want to see a different side to me on the floor.
“I feel it’s more pressure for me now. People are thinking, ‘She’s done Rio, she’s done Strictly’. They’re expecting something big, so hopefully I can put on a good performance.”
Fragapane describes her TV experience as “amazing”, and remembers her lunch dates with Louise Redknapp with particular fondness. But she also knows the difference between impressing Len Goodman and sticking her landing at the end of a heart-in-mouth beam routine.
“Strictly was a competition, but not a competition at the same time,” she said. “The hardest thing was starting out. In my first lesson with A J he made me do a flip with high heels on! It was nerve-racking to think about all those millions of people watching, and the first time I went out I was so scared. But then I said to myself, ‘Why am I so scared? If I mess up it’s fine’.”
And there’s the rub. Nine-hour rehearsals in high heels may be exhausting, but a mistimed dismount can send you to hospital. The fixed smiles and diamante-studded costumes of female gymnasts can be misleading, for there is a death-defying edge to their stunts.
As if to highlight that contrast, Fragapane’s other big commitment of 2016 came in Rio. Attending her first Olympics, she was lined up behind Ellie Downie, Britain’s most explosive tumbler, for her qualification routine on the floor. The next few seconds did much to define the week for Britain’s women in general, and Fragapane in particular. Downie stepped into the diagonal pass that initiates one of her high-flying acrobatic sequences. But suddenly she was lying on the ground, and the medics were rushing to her aid.
“I think it was her second tumble,” recalls Fragapane. “She was supposed to do a twist and then jump out into another somersault, but she under-rotated and landed on her neck. I said to myself, ‘Well, I still have to go out there and try to get us into the team final’. But then part of me was so worried about Ellie, so I was pretty torn, and it was really hard for me to do my floor routine.
“Afterwards my face lit up when she walked back in. She was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not leaving you guys, we’re gonna do this’. I just thought how brave she was. She had been wheelchaired off the floor, but she said, ‘Get me out of this wheelchair’, she came back in and did her vault. I thought that was an amazing achievement.”
The courage of both women helped the British team achieve their primary goal of reaching the team final. But this was not a happy ending from every perspective, as a spooked Fragapane lacked her usual bounce in the floor routine. A score of 14.333 placed her equal 10th, but only 10 go through, and Italy’s Erika Fasana nipped ahead via a clause favouring the gymnast with fewer deductions.
This was an even harder verdict to take than Fragapane’s elimination from Strictly at the semi-final stage. She sought comfort from her father that night at the British House on the far side of Rio, knowing that a lifetime of preparation had just been frustrated by a technicality.
“It was heartbreaking,” says Fragapane. “But it’s given me motivation to push on until Tokyo and get a medal there. If I had done it in Rio, I would have finished competing –maybe gone into coaching or started my own club. Now I want to work even harder. Coming back from Rio, everyone was, ‘Oh it’s a bit of a shame that you didn’t get a medal’. But for us it was an achievement. I think people forgot that Great Britain wasn’t that good at gymnastics and we’ve upped it every year since 2014.
“All the other countries were watching us in training, especially Russia. You could see they were working extra hard, and unfortunately they came out on top.”
In medal terms, the women could not quite match the pace set by Max Whitlock and his confrères. Sixteen-year-old Amy Tinkler was overcome with joy at her surprise bronze on floor. The rest looked a little rueful as they left the stage after the team final, where their fifth place represented a dip from the bronze they took in Glasgow.
But the prizes are always secondary, in gymnastics, to sheer survival. And the sense of camaraderie between these women – who are rivals as well as friends – extends beyond national boundaries. The BBC head of sport, former international gymnast Barbara Slater, has noted the way that “the girls cheer for each other, and I don’t just mean their own team-mates”. It is a function, she argues, of the brutal nature of the sport.
Fragapane’s own idol during her formative years was Rhian Pugh, a former junior European champion whose career ended when she broke her back. Fragapane says: “We know it’s not going to last for ever. For us girls, our bodies wear out faster than the boys. But in Rio we were all together, we had our laughs, our giggles, our ups and downs. I’ve known Ellie since I was 15, so we’ve been through so much together. It was an amazing experience, and I’ve had a lot of love from everyone since I’ve been home.
“Now I’ve I been through the Olympics and through Strictly, and I feel more calm. I used to be really tense and nervous before competitions, but I’ve learnt to deal with the pressure. So for the next four years I am just going to chill. I’ll try hard like I always do. If it happens for me, then great.”