“We were crazy kids who just jumped on everything”: Turner twins Jessica and Jennifer Gadirova | gymnastics

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Olympic Games | The Guardian

E.On a Friday morning in a large, open gym in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, Jessica and Jennifer Gadirova stand a few feet apart on a springy blue floor preparing to take off. You convinced the photographer to take a picture of her jumping hands. The hope is that they coordinate so well that the camera will capture the identical twins in identical poses in midair; Back arched like horseshoes, hands just short of the ground, legs straight, feet pointed like ballerinas. The countdown begins. On a viewing platform on the second floor, a crowd of parents and toddlers, here for the preschool race, are watching intently. Three two one. The children are spellbound, probably unaware that they are seeing two Olympic bronze medalists in action. The jumps look coordinated enough to me – but did it work for the camera? Not this time, as it turns out.

This is the Gadirova twins’ first photoshoot and I can feel their excitement. In addition to acrobatics on the floor, they suggest poses on the beams and bars – all sorts of kicks, handstands and jumps. Your Olympic-level work ethic shows through. “I could straighten my leg,” suggests Jessica after stepping on a beam, and hops on it again. When it’s time for a solo portrait, the unphotographed twin takes her cell phone and proudly documents how the other is in the spotlight. There is a strong commitment to equality between them. When the photographer places a twin in front, he asks for another set of pictures, this time changing places. “We’re the twins, but it’s nice to be recognized as individuals,” Jennifer tells me later.

One of my friends said, ‘I knew you always trained. I never knew what you were training for ‘

Jessica and Jennifer won over the audience even before the Tokyo Games began. They were identical 16-year-old students who had just completed their GCSEs and were on the verge of living their Olympic dream. Even getting on that flight to Tokyo – the longest flight they had ever made – caused butterflies. For anyone watching from home, the excitement of the Gadirovas was evident in the way they stumbled, cheered, and hugged and stood on the podium to earn bronze for Britain in women’s team gymnastics (the first medal of the Landes at the event for 93 years). . As I watched them prepare for the competition, I noticed how much younger they looked than everyone else. However, when they emerged, that distinction disappeared. They spun in the air and hung from poles looking completely relaxed, delighted to show the world what they can do.

Since their return, they have attended the premiere of the new James Bond film, appeared on Blue Peter, named two purple double-decker buses in Aylesbury after them and turned 17. People pay for their meals in restaurants and ask for autographs (“I don’t feel that special,” says Jessica). And their friends finally understood what the twins are up to when they say they are in training. “One of my friends said, ‘I knew you always trained. I never knew what you were training for, ”says Jessica with a smile. Jennifer nods. “People in my class said a few years ago, ‘How good are you at gymnastics?'”

Gymnast Jennifer Gadirova does a flip against a red backgroundJennifer: ‘I love to show the world what I can do.’ Photo: Rick Guest / The Guardian

Jessica and Jennifer started exercising at the age of six. Her parents, Natig and Iona, moved from Azerbaijan to London in 2001 and to Dublin for work in 2004, where the twins were born before moving to Coventry. There they were divided into classes. “We were crazy kids who just jumped on everything,” recalls Jessica. Her mom and dad, who run a small logistics company, “drive us into a lot of sport, but gymnastics is what we have stayed and loved the most”. They moved to London, then at 12 to Aylesbury, where they continued their intense gymnastics training. What do you love about it? “The great amazing skills,” says Jennifer. “I love performing, going to these big competitions and showing the world what I can do.”

It wasn’t until May that the twins found out that they had been selected for the Olympic Games. Getting to that moment required an arduous exercise program that was made more complicated by Covid. A case at her school last winter highlighted the seriousness of the pandemic – and its possible impact on the twins’ Olympic dreams. Although the school stayed open, they were given permission to attend their classes and GCSEs remotely. When lockdown restrictions meant they couldn’t work out in the gym, they brought the equipment home and practiced in their garage. Tired of being stuck at home and not seeing their classmates? “We had each other,” replies Jessica and looks at her sister. “She is my best friend.”

Your bond is strong. During our conversation, they often look at each other, support each other and finish their sentences, although they like to be seen as individuals. Jennifer is supposedly the quiet one and Jessica the loud one: When I am there, Jessica enthusiastically documents the photo shoot for Instagram. They are full of energy and especially lively when it comes to Tokyo or the weirdness of their new fame. What are they doing separately? There is a pause. “Um,” both say. “This is difficult.” Then Jessica adds, “I feel like we’re doing almost everything together.”

Gymnast Jessica Gadirova poses against a red backgroundJessica: ‘We do almost everything together.’ Photo: Rick Guest / The Guardian

How did you feel when you stood on the podium? “Shock, disbelief,” Jennifer begins. “There are so many emotions flowing through it, like happiness,” continues Jessica. “You feel like you are on top of the world, you are shocked, you are in a dream.”

Before the Games, many eyes were on Simone Biles, who has dominated women’s gymnastics for seven years and who was expected to triumph. But after faltering at the vault during the women’s team final, Biles withdrew, citing medical issues. Updates on her condition were posted daily: she fell off the ground, jumped, and uneven bars before returning to win bronze on the balance beam. The story was followed around the world, but it had a direct impact on the Gadirovas. Jennifer was the first reserve in the women’s final, and Bile’s retreat allowed her to compete. “I was thrilled because flooring is my favorite,” she says. She had prepared for the possibility, knowing Biles was having trouble, but added, “I felt sorry for Simone.” Being in the same competition as her longtime hero was his own reward; Biles is scheduled to retire to Tokyo, despite recently hinting that she might “leave the door” open for future competitions. “We are at the beginning of our careers and she is about to end hers,” says Jennifer. “Not many people can claim to have stood on the podium with their idol.”

Biles later revealed that by pulling out of the games she was trying to protect her mental health, stating, “There were a few days when everyone was tweeting and you felt the weight of the world.” Her decision was made at a time in of more and more athletes talking about their wellbeing. Tennis star Naomi Osaka tried to skip press conferences at the French Open this year because she cited psychological stress. She was fined $ 15,000 and given a ban before withdrawing from the tournament. In an essay about her decision, Osaka wrote: “Athletes are people.” Before her triumph at the US Open, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu retired from Wimbledon after breathing difficulties and said her successful run “caught up with me”. All three were criticized. Conservative and right-wing experts called Biles “weak” and “selfish” and called on Raducanu to “toughen up”; Some claimed Osaka was a hypocrite for continuing to appear on the covers of magazines while skipping post-game conferences.

We told Stormzy that we were Olympic medalists and he said, ‘I have so much respect for you.’ We have just started fangirling

However, the twins found these moments inspiring. Far from being selfish or weak, they signaled to younger athletes that they too can take care of themselves in an often competitive and demanding world. “It is good that you speak up,” says Jessica, “because it can help the next generation understand that when they have a problem …” “You can speak for yourself,” jumps in Jennifer and ends Her sister’s sentence.

Gymnasts Jennifer (left) and Jessica Gadirova stand back to back on a pole against a blue backgroundJennifer (left) and Jessica: “We are the twins, but it’s nice to be recognized as individuals.” Photo: Rick Guest / The Guardian. Styling: Peter Bevan. Makeup and Hair: Sarah Cherry with Trinny London

In Tokyo, the Gadirovas found that they were no longer just young gymnasts staring at established names with fixed eyes. “It’s overwhelming that we’re as good as her,” says Jessica. Former British gymnastics champion Craig Heap, who was a BBC commentator in Tokyo, describes the Gadirovas’ style as “powerful, dynamic, yet full of grace and beauty” and adds: “There has been a real power shift in sport in recent years Grace … but what the Gadirovas have is a bit of both. “Heap was particularly impressed by the way they keep their nerve:” They seemed absolutely fearless. This confidence in the future will drive them. “

Have things settled down for the Gemini since the first round of post-Olympic worship? A little, says Jessica, before adding, “I don’t think it’ll ever get back to normal.” It was exciting to ride the wave of her newfound fame. At the Bond premiere, they sat in front of Stormzy and gave him their popcorn – it was fortified so they weren’t allowed to eat it. “We said we were Olympic bronze medalists,” says Jennifer, “and he said, ‘I have so much respect for you guys because gymnastics can be really tough.’ We’re just getting started… ”She looks at her sister. “Fangirling,” they say together.

Right now they are back to juggling gymnastics, their studies and teenage years. After spending a morning browsing and kicking their way through today’s photo shoot, it’s off to school. They have just started high school studying sports and management, which they think feels a lot better than GCSEs – they can use their free hours to do more gymnastics. Like many 17-year-olds, they look forward to learning to drive. What is less typical is that they focus on the next round of international competitions. I ask what they are training for. “Commonwealth Games 2022, European and World Championships,” they rattle unanimously. And Paris in 2024, I ask? “Yes, with a gradual increase to Paris,” says Jessica with a small smile. I feel like they’re just warming up to their ambition: Gadirovas are planning so much more and want to prove it.

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