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The gymnast who couldn't walk: Imogen Cairns finds her feet

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Ollie Williams | 20:19 UK time, Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Unable to walk for months, bedridden and fitfully reliving the Olympic pinnacle of her short career, gymnastics offered little to Imogen Cairns.

Having travelled to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and competed for Britain, the Westcountry teenager "snapped both legs" - in her own words - at her next event, a nothing competition where she planned to practise new routines.

The injury put her out of gymnastics for more than a year, a tragedy for a girl who left home at the age of 14 for the sport. While others began to target the London Olympics she lay in bed and put on weight, relying on friends to bring food up the stairs.

So how did Cairns, now 21, fight back to win two Commonwealth titles in Delhi and elbow her way into the British team for this week's World Championships in Rotterdam?

 

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Video: Watch Cairns and GB in Worlds qualifying action. (UK users only)

"I assumed my career was over," she says as we watch the conclusion of qualification at the World Gymnastics. Cairns helped the British women qualify in a creditable fifth place to reach Wednesday's final, then will have a place in the final of the vault on Saturday.

"There were times I was in bed at 2am - all my sleeping patterns had gone because I was sat down doing nothing every day - and I was staring out of my window thinking, 'I just want to go to the gym'. But I couldn't. I couldn't even walk. It was dreadful.

Imogen Cairns

Cairns won double Commonwealth gold in Delhi. Photo: Getty Images

"It happened during a warm-up. When I landed I felt both legs snap - not the bones, but everything else snapped. 

"It took me a long time to walk again, and then it didn't heal properly. Scar tissue formed and I had to go back for another operation to clear that out.

"All the skills were still in my head, I just needed to get fit, but it took me two years to get back. The hardest part was doing nothing for six months, in bed. I lost my motivation, I was putting on weight and I became very depressed."

The injury wasn't the only demon Cairns faced. With a few notable exceptions - such as 25-year-old Beth Tweddle - female gymnasts entering their 20s become painfully aware of a clock ticking. Many are barely out of their teens when they retire, and Cairns had already achieved her dream.

"I always say I need an aim in gymnastics," she says. "Something to work for, something to drive me to go into the gym. The worst was after the Olympics: my whole life was to get there, it's the pinnacle of a gymnast's career. It was on my mind from the minute I was a little girl.

"But I think that really screwed me up. Once it was over I thought, 'What now?' Something went from me and I wondered why I was even in the sport.

"I was really fit after China, at my peak, so I got a new floor routine together with bigger and better skills, and then the injury happened. And that makes me think these things happen for a reason. I think that was meant to happen, because when I came back I was hungry for it again."

It isn't the first time Cairns' love of gymnastics has won the day. She grew up in a Bristol pub run by her parents but, when she was 14, they chose to sell up and move to Devon at the same time as her gymnastics coach moved to a club in Portishead.

Cairns chose Portishead over Devon, effectively leaving home at 14 to move in with a friend. She remembers: "Gymnastics was my life at the time. I was good at it, why stop? Why pull away for a normal life? I didn't want that."

It's safe to say the last few years don't qualify as normal. Her legs and career reconstructed, she hauled herself into England's team for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, announcing her comeback with gold medals on the vault and floor. Stories of dirty sinks and snakes in beds did nothing to dampen her enthusiasm.

"It's one of the best trips I've ever been on - I wish I could still be there. Everything was nice: the food, the place, the rooms, the gyms, everything was up to scratch. Whatever we read and heard about Delhi was all rubbish. People came with the expectation it'd be bad, but once you were there it got nobody down. You saw for yourself it was fine.

"I did what I wanted to do in Delhi. Everything slotted into place and if it wasn't going to happen for me then, it wasn't ever going to happen."

 

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Video: Discover the top international gymnasts challenging GB women at Worlds. (UK users only)

Her performances caught the eye of the British team selectors in Rotterdam and, having initially been named as a reserve, Cairns found herself sent straight into action for GB a week after the Commonwealths. Crutches cast aside, she is lining up in finals here as one of the finest gymnasts in the world.

"It's hard to say how much the injury set me back, but something has changed and I'm a lot better than I ever was now, and there's still more to come. I've still got it. When you're tired, your body's hurting and you can't manage it, that's the time to do other things. But I just don't feel that yet. I'm not ready to give up.

"London 2012 was never a target for me. But now I'm thinking - if they can pick me for Worlds then I'm not going to say no, I'm going to go. I'm enjoying it at the moment and never before could I truly say that. I can choose what I want to do. I appreciate it and I feel really lucky to be here.

"I've nothing to lose, I've only got things to gain. All I want to do is keep performing like I am. It could be karma, I don't know, but I'm doing well and I couldn't be any more ready then I am. If it goes, it goes - which it should - and if it doesn't, I'm not getting down about it. The fire is burning."

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    What an uplifting and inspiring story. In the face of the likes of premier league football players who are out to achieve nothing but milk the sport dry for their own financial gain, no matter how terrible their form is, what a wonderful story of an everyday girl who just wanted to compete in the sport she loves and represent her country at one of the highest levels.

    All to often, real sporting heroes like Imogen are given only a small share of the spotlight in comparison to those who hit the headlines (for perhaps more wrong reasons than right) in the more popular sports.

    Congratulations Imogen. I wasn't aware of your plight, and admittedly do not make a bee-line to watch gymnastics on a regular basis, but had I been, it would have been a pleasure to follow and watch you during the games. I shall be making a point of looking out for you from now on and spreading the word!! :D

  • Comment number 2.

    In a sporting world deominated by money and celeb culture, here is someone who should be held up as a real example to kids everywhere of following your dreams and keeping going throughout adversity.

    It's the sort of person to my mind who would deserve the Helen Rollason awaard at SPOTY.

  • Comment number 3.

    Top marks for Imogen. 10 out of 10.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    Really nice piece.

    This is actally the third time in her career that she has come back to the sport after an absence so long that everyone in the gymnastics community assumed she had quit.

    And comebacks after an absence of even a year are incredibly rare in this sport - it is so hard to get back to the elite level.

    Imogen is the ultimate comeback queen.

  • Comment number 6.

    What an inspirational story. And I think it was a good call to include her in the Worlds team in the end, even though she has already competed in Delhi.

    Good luck to Imogen & the rest of the team for the team final later today and to imogen for the Vault final at the weekend.

  • Comment number 7.

    An extraordinary story.

    And what a wonderful time to cover it, in the midst of endless discussion over Wayne Rooney.

  • Comment number 8.

    Imogen is my son's trampolining teacher in Portishead. He is nearly 11 years old and has known her for about 4 years. We watched her success in Melbourne 4 years ago but have enjoyed her present success all the more because of the struggle she has had for fitness. My son said it seemed very strange seeing Sue Barker interview his trampolining teacher! She has given our whole town a lift.

  • Comment number 9.

    Truly inspirational story.
    ""It's one of the best trips I've ever been on - I wish I could still be there. Everything was nice: the food, the place, the rooms, the gyms, everything was up to scratch. Whatever we read and heard about Delhi was all rubbish. People came with the expectation it'd be bad, but once you were there it got nobody down. You saw for yourself it was fine."" Thanks a lot Imogen. You are a braveheart. I really wish that foreign journalists too stop painting the people of India and the crooked politicians/bureaucrats with the same brush.

  • Comment number 10.

    What an inspirational story. Imaogen is a brave girl for overcoming all the obstacles for achieving her dream in her career. She has had a wonderful Commonwealth games in Dehli and she is a real contender for success for London 2012. Good luck Imogen for everything and hope you continue to shine in your beloved sport.

  • Comment number 11.



    Congratulations to gymnast Imogen Cairns for her double success at the CWG in Delhi. All the very best in the World Championships in Rotterdam.

    Fine blog by Ollie Williams.



    Dr. Cajetan Coelho

 

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