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Grassroots to Glory - Alice Kinsella

From a family talent for fancy footwork to taking the floor!

Gymnastics coach and commentator Christine Still is accustomed to tempering expectations—and her protégé, Alice Kinsella is getting used to defying them.

Still first met Kinsella, 20, when the budding Olympian was seven and her parents, Karen, and Mark, brought her to Telford’s National Lottery-funded Park Wrekin Gymnastics Club where Still serves as head coach.  A year later, in her first season of competition, eight-year-old Kinsella was a regional and national champion. In a sport dominated by routine, explained her coach, Kinsella’s was a highly unusual trajectory. 

“She comes from a very sporty family,” said Still, who also works as the BBC’s Olympic gymnastics expert.

“Her father was a professional footballer, and I remember I had a meeting with her parents afterwards to say not to expect too much and that she can’t win every year.  Her dad immediately said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m a footballer, I know that!’ She not only had the advantage of that competitive spirit, but there was also plenty of understanding at home. If she did not do well, it was never seen as a disaster. There was just a very matter-of-fact approach to it.  She was a talented and focussed young gymnast. She was supple and strong; within gymnastics you need that and to be well coordinated and fast. You need to be able to dance, show a bit of artistry and she showed all those qualities but it’s not really until they compete that you see if they’ll crumble under pressure.”

Mark Kinsella is a former Ireland international who earned 48 caps for his country and played in the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Alice’s older brother, Liam, is a midfielder for League Two side Walsall.   Essex native Kinsella, who now lives near Birmingham, drew inspiration from both relatives as a youngster but wanted to make one thing perfectly clear.

“Gymnastics is definitely harder than football!” said Kinsella. “I don’t care what anyone says! They’re just kicking a ball around whereas we’re doing no-handed flips on a four-inch-wide beam, swinging in between bars, letting go and catching again – it’s definitely harder!” Still, she admitted, Liam is not without his merits. 

“When I was younger, I wanted to be like my brother and my dad – that was my main goal.  I’m super proud of [Liam] because I know how hard, he’s worked throughout his whole life,” she said. 

“Just watching him achieve it and watching him play a few games makes me super happy for him, and it inspires me and motivates me to try and do my best in gymnastics as well.  Growing up and watching my dad and brother become the best they could have really motivated me and inspired me to become the best gymnast I could be.” 

If Kinsella’s career were a gymnastics apparatus, it would probably be the uneven bars. Though she was always in the top half-dozen of the pack, recalled Still, “there were some things [Alice] didn’t find as easy as some of the others.”

When Kinsella was about 12, she competed in England’s School Games and whilst she was used to the stability of Park Wrekin, she initially struggled with the revolving door of coaches. Still said, “Alice didn’t know. But she was still able to keep her composure and was able to push herself to do well.”

Nastia Liukin conquered the 2008 Olympics around the same time Kinsella was challenging her fellow English pupils, “training near-enough 24/7, so I had to miss a few lessons.” Russian-born American Gymnast Liukin won a US record-tying five medals in Beijing that summer, including all-around gold. Kinsella was enthralled. 

“She was one of my idols,” Kinsella explained. “I still watch videos of the 2008 Olympics now. I obviously had goals then but watching that made me dream even bigger, thinking of the Olympics, and believing I could get there.”

Kinsella was not the only one who thought she might have Olympic potential. Still and the other coaches were starting to see it too, but it wasn't to be a straightforward journey. Still said: “We have two years aged 14 and 15 where gymnasts are at the top of the junior pyramid and she didn’t make the team to travel to the Europeans that year.

“She was really in the middle of puberty and she was very disappointed to be named the reserve. Brett and I [Ince] said to her, ‘there’s only one way to deal with disappointment, and that’s to make sure you work twice as hard and never have to be the one left behind again.’ A year later she was at the top of the team, heading to the European Championships, and she came away with two medals [team and beam] against the best in Europe. She’s always been able to put disappointment to good use. After the junior Europeans, people started to think, ‘oh, gosh, maybe she’ll be someone to be reckoned with in the next cycle.’”

So still and Ince sat down with Karen and offered her daughter the chance to receive support from National Lottery funding, enough to pay for Kinsella’s expenses.   “If you take this on,” Still stressed, “it’s no longer just a hobby.”

The answer was a resounding yes. It was the moment, said the coach, “when it became clear that she’d move towards gymnastics as a career.”

Alice with her mum Karen

Kinsella is one of over 1,000 athletes to benefit from National Lottery funding, allowing her to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams. She’s proved herself well worth the investment. In 2018, she stunned in her Commonwealth Games debut on the Gold Coast, winning all-round bronze, team silver, and gold on the beam. A year later, she added European beam champion to her growing list of accomplishments. 

This year’s Europeans did not go exactly to plan—Kinsella finished a disappointing 18th—but was thankful to “brush off the cobwebs” in her first competition back in over a year, thanks to the pandemic.

 “I was quite nervous,” said Kinsella, “But I think I also put a lot of pressure on myself, being the 2019 champion. "It felt a bit weird being out there again but it did feel good at the same time. I was warming up for the beam, getting ready to go, and the commentator announced me as the European champion from 2019. My heart just sank and I did not know what to do because I had never been in that situation before.

“From that point I think I put a bit too much pressure on myself knowing that that had just been said, and obviously wanting to show people what I could do. But having been in that situation I will know what is coming now, if it happens again.

”The Olympics fanatic hopes to, as her coach would say, “put her disappointment to good use” in Tokyo, where she is still a bit stunned to say she will be the one sporting Team GB kit. 

The fortunes of Team GB have transformed over the past two decades thanks to National Lottery players and Kinsella vividly remembers London 2012, the Games that gave her a British hero to idolize. 

“I remember watching Beth Tweddle win the bronze medal on bars, which was an amazing feeling,” she gushed. “And I actually went to Rio to watch the 2016 Games. There is not anything like it.  Now I can go out there and actually compete for my country. It’s massive for me. Competing for your country is one of the best feelings in the world.”

Finally, after the highs. the lows, the ups and downs, the twists and flips and turns—Kinsella’s finally found her balance, just when she needs it most.

She added: “Knowing how far you’ve come is a great feeling.”

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