At the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, history was written when an Australian rhythmic gymnastics group took to the floor for the very first time.
Emily Abbot, Alexandra Aristoteli, Alannah Mathews, Himeka Onoda and Felicity White became Australia’s first contestants in an event that was first introduced at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
One member of the group, Alannah Mathews, spoke to The Inner Sanctum about her journey towards accomplishing what no other Australian had done before.
It all began at the age of eight when a young Mathews made the switch from ballet dancing to gymnastics. Though she originally wanted to pursue artistic gymnastics, Mathews’ mum, a former artistic gymnast herself, persuaded her daughter into rhythmic.
“I remember being told that it’s really hard on your body and you can break your ankles. I remember hearing that and thinking, okay, I’ll do the other one (rhythmic gymnastics) and so I picked up the ball and the ribbon and the rest is history.”
It was all learning and having fun for Mathews for the years following that, but it was soon clear she was talented, and sacrifices had to be made early on to further her development.
“I started gymnastics in Adelaide and three years later we moved to Brisbane where I attended Sheldon College, but I was training at Moreton Bay Girls College, so I was commuting schools.
“My dad was driving me back and forth (to training). He’d be driving nearly three or four hours a day, commuting for me but also driving my brother who was swimming as well and that was pretty full on.
“When high school started, mum, dad and I decided to move me to that school (Moreton Bay Girls College) to make it easier for me to get to training on time and just making the most of it.”
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Mathews initially competed individually but began falling out of love with the sport. At Moreton Bay Girls College, she met Aristoteli, Onoda and White, and soon later, Mathews was training in group rhythmic where she rediscovered her passion.
“In individuals, you can get really in your own head, but in groups, it’s like a sisterhood and you’re going for this one goal together and we can rely on each other, have each other’s back.”
The four girls have been training and competing together as a group for around six or seven years. For Mathews, the Olympics was a goal from around the age of 16.
“That was when everything started to get competitive, and in my mind, I made the decision that I was going to make all these years of training worth it and go for the Olympics. When I decided that, I put everything I could into making sure that was what happened.”
The group seemed to struggle to hold down a fifth group member, and if the Olympics were ever to be attainable, they needed someone to commit with them years in advance. In 2018, they found that person in Abbot.
“We had to make a decision and find someone that would be committed with us to make it to these Olympic Games.
“I contacted Emily who started gymnastics with me when I was back in Adelaide, when she was ten and I was eight. I told her this opportunity has come up and to come to Brisbane, trial for the team. I knew that this was something that she would want to be a part of.”
The girls competed for Queensland and Australia for the six to seven years leading up to Olympics in trial, state, national and international competitions relentlessly.
After years of training and competing, it all came down to the Continental Championships. The girls needed a score of 17 in both the ball and the mixed.
“We did our first routine (with the ball) and got a 26, and the mixed we got 22 or a 23, and then afterwards, knowing we’d done enough (to qualify) was a massive sense of relief.
“We were all really nervous going into that competition because there was so much riding on it, all the training and hard work built up to this one moment, five minutes on the floor, it was an amazing feeling, there were definitely some tears.
“We’d all sacrificed so much, training 30 hours a week as just the five of us for the last two years and also the years before Emily joined us, for it all to come into fruition was an incredible relief.”
The months following, the emotion of making the Olympics hadn’t really sunk in for the girls. For Mathews, it wasn’t until the night before she left Brisbane that it all started to feel real.
“I was going through all my stuff, making sure I had the right documents, my passport and everything and then I had this moment of ‘wow, I’m leaving tomorrow’ and I had a little bit of a freak out, a little bit of anxiety, but mostly excitement, it’s a really crazy sensation.”
The team spent around two weeks in Canberra in a training camp bubble at the Australian Institute of Sport. The camp allowed the girls to completely focus on their training and preparation. They would watch majority of the Games in Canberra as their event took place in the final days of the competition.
After some travelling issues, the team arrived in Tokyo a day ahead of schedule, but that didn’t disrupt their flow as they were able to experience an extra day in the village.
“When we got there, all the swimmers were there, they were finished, so they were celebrating, it was just cool to see famous people.
“Like Cate Campbell was just sitting there, and Patty Mills, and I was just like ‘this is incredible’, and I’m in the same team as them and all these Australian athletes at the top of their game, we’re all coming together and I’m a part of that team.”
Eventually the time came for the Rhythmic Gymnastics Group event. Australia were to perform second.
“It was hectic, nothing can ever prepare you for how you feel in that moment (walking out onto the floor).
“Having no spectators probably made things easier because there’s no background noise, and you can just be in the moment.
“The last thing we said to each other was just ‘alright, let’s go, we’re ready’, and then we just walked out, you can feel how nervous everyone is as well.
“Everything leading up to it was perfect, we couldn’t have done anything different, how we were training was fine, we were in the zone, but things started to go pear shaped seconds into the routine.
“Our goal going to the Olympics was to do two clean routines, which we didn’t do, it wasn’t a good competition for us, unfortunately, but that’s how sport goes sometimes.”
Early in the ball routine, there was a misthrow, and the girls had to exchange the runaway ball for one of replacements at the edge of the floor.
“It happened within seconds of the music starting, and (in my head) I was like, ‘well, s***’, obviously we’ve been competing for a long time, so we’ve learnt to just pick it up and keep going.
“It throws you off, because we picked up the spare ball, and the spare ball is white, and our balls are orange, so for the rest of the two minutes and 15 seconds there’s this white ball being thrown around and it makes it hard to forget the mistake (whilst performing).
“It was hard, our goal was to not drop, and it happened right at the start.”
There were some wonderful moments as well from the girls. During their mixed routine, there was a moment where an unsuspecting viewer might have stopped and almost questioned whether they genuinely just saw what they think they saw.
In a second of brilliance, Mathews threw herself through a hoop, showcasing an incredible amount of talent and athleticism combined. It’s without a doubt one of highlights from the girls.
“We’ve had that skill in there for a while now, we’ve been able to perfect it, but it was a cool moment.”
After everything the girls had gone through with each other in the years leading up to that moment, they reached the conclusion of their Tokyo 2020 journey.
“There was relief, but at the same time we were still so gutted (about the drop), it wasn’t how we imagined it would be, but after a few days we were able to come to terms with it.
“I think if you were to talk with some of the other the girls, they really just enjoyed being out there and having the chance to compete, they wouldn’t even change their time on the mat for the world.”
Mathews is yet to decide on what her future holds regarding her gymnastics career, with Paris 2024 still on the cards as a possibility. Whatever she decides, Mathews and her teammates will forever be written in the history books as the pioneers of Australian group rhythmic gymnastics at the Olympic Games, and that is worth celebrating.
“I’m hoping that being the first (rhythmic) group for Australia at the Olympics means that groups will start popping up everywhere.”
The girls have since spent their 14 days in quarantine which has allowed them time for reflection. Their legacy has been written, but where it takes them from now is yet to be discovered.
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