Laura Gallagher: Bouncing back 

Laura Gallagher at the 29th FIG Trampoline Gymnastics World Championships Sofia, Bulgaria, 07-10 November 2013
Laura Gallagher at the 29th FIG Trampoline Gymnastics World Championships Sofia, Bulgaria, 07-10 November 2013

In late 2019, Team GB trampoline gymnast Laura Gallagher booked a spot for her country at Tokyo 2020. It represented a full turnaround for an athlete who just three years earlier had walked away from a sport she thought she had lost her love for. 

"You don't get to the top of the jump and think, 'Oh my God, I'm really high here'. If you're in the right place, generally you don't think about it so much," Team GB trampoline gymnast Laura Gallagher explained in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020.

The 2017 British champion was talking about how it feels to fly 8m into the air while performing tricks, twists and turns that can leave a crowd gasping.

But it soon becomes clear she could just have easily been speaking about her own life and the challenges she has faced – even at times when she should have been celebrating her greatest triumphs.

If you're in the right place, you don't even think about it. But what happens when you're in the wrong place?

Losing perspective

In 2007, Laura Gallagher found herself struggling in a way she never had before.

"I won the Junior World Championships in 2007 in Canada and for some reason I really struggled with my confidence when I came back from that," said Gallagher.

"It was a bit of a strange experience but I struggled with skill confusion and mental blocks. And I found it got so bad that I couldn't get onto the trampoline at all sometimes."

Gallagher's performance at the 2007 Junior World Championships should have set her up for a smooth entry into the senior ranks of her sport. Instead, at a time when many would think she should have been on top of the world, Gallagher was close to rock bottom.

With confidence at an all-time low, it took Gallagher a full 10 months to get over those early struggles. Slowly but surely she overcame her crisis and her participation at the senior World Championships a year later represented a "huge achievement" that she still looks back on fondly.

But nine years on, she was once again struggling – this time so much so that she walked away from the sport.

Laura Gallagher at the 34th FIG Trampoline Gymnastics World Championships, Tokyo, 2019
Laura Gallagher at the 34th FIG Trampoline Gymnastics World Championships, Tokyo, 2019
Courtesy of British Gymnastics.

A bad bounce

Hitting a bad bounce on a trampoline can have disastrous consequences. You can go hurtling off course in such a way that your routine never recovers.

In 2016, when Gallagher made the decision to give up on trampoline for good, it wasn't only her sporting life that was spiralling out of control.

"It was just too much, I couldn't think clearly. I couldn't make the right decisions and make clear decisions. Those things are really needed in sport. But you then lose perspective of yourself and your identity.

"And then it doesn't just happen in the trampoline world, it happens to you as a person."

Gallagher had suffered with injury and a series of performances that hadn't lived up to the ultra-high expectations she set for herself. But walking away from the trampoline didn't solve her problems. If anything it shone a spotlight on deeper issues of confidence and self-worth that had infiltrated her life.

"I guess I'd forgotten myself, forgotten what I could do and what I had done all the way through, which is work and train and study – and all the skills I did have."

I just loved it and learnt how to win and lose again, really.

And without it meaning literally everything.

For the love of sport

If feeling like she was falling out of love with sport was one of the reasons Gallagher had walked away from the trampoline, falling back in love with sport was at the centre of her return.

But it wasn't the sport you might have expected.

"My boss at the time, she was just the right person at the right time, just a brilliant person. And actually, she was a massive hockey fan and got me into hockey," Gallagher explained. "It was my first meeting when I started the job, she was like 'can you play hockey on Saturday?'"

Running recklessly around the hockey field at the weekend, "not really being good with the stick, being in every position and being able to chuck in a pass" was exactly what Gallagher needed to reconnect with the joys of sport.

It was an experience that allowed her to re-learn the basics of what it means to just play for the sake of playing:

"I just loved it and learnt how to win and lose again, really," said Gallagher. "And without it meaning literally everything."

What followed was a gradual return to the trampoline and the sport she excels at. And slowly but surely, a rekindling of the passion she has for the sport.

For a period of 18 months, Gallagher was not funded as an athlete. She saw trampolining more as a "hobby" than a career and at the same time worked full-time, played hockey on weekends and studied for a degree in psychology.

Her schedule was dizzyingly busy. And she loved every minute of it.

The one that mattered most

Gallagher has enjoyed many victories in her career: 2012 European Championship team gold, 2013 World Championships team gold, 2017 World Championship team bronze – the list goes on. But the greatest achievement of them all is perhaps the 2017 British Championships title.

Having turned her back on the trampoline in 2016, Gallagher had taken the "baby steps" required to ensure her return to competition was successful – and healthy.

"That's why the British Championships in 2017 meant so much to me, because actually I wasn't sure at that point. It was still very much at that point competition to competition, let's see where this goes."

The reason why I was still doing it was and still is

because I still love the sport.

Before the British Championships, she was still considering calling time on her career on the trampoline. But something changed in her with that competition and the next. Something that set her on a path to Tokyo.

"I became British Champion and then went onto the World Cup and smashed that competition personally. The competition there was incredible and I finished just outside the medal positions but I was so chuffed because that was the best routine I'd completed ever at that point."

"It's been a brilliant experience after several years of really tough times and challenges and asking myself why I'm still putting myself through it.

"And really, underneath all that, the reason why I was still doing it was, and still is, because I still love the sport."

Booking Team GB a place at the Games

Not only was 2017 significant from the point of view of re-discovering her love for the sport, it also let her dream again about one competition she had all but given up on. The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

"It wasn't until the end of that year that I committed to Tokyo, to training for the Games and saying that could be a possibility for me," she recalled.

Gallagher was once again on an upward trajectory, but in the fierce competition of trampoline gymnastics there's no guarantee that you will reach the heights you need to book a spot at the Olympics.

The names on the British team for Tokyo 2020 have still not been decided. But at the 2019 World Championships in November 2019, Gallagher won Team GB their first trampolining place at this year's Olympics with a spectacular performance that saw her place sixth in the individual competition.

She has put herself in an excellent position for a place in Tokyo, even though her personal qualification still feels like it's a long way in the distance.

"I'd just love to be part of something so special this year. I think it'll be really nice if everything can go ahead safely, it would just be a really brilliant opportunity for everyone to come together."

The rocky road to an Olympics

Last year threw up many challenges for the athletes hoping to take part in this year's Games – not least the question of what to do during periods of lockdown and how to deal with an unprecedented Olympics postponement.

Gallagher threw herself into a number of different activities that helped the time not feel wasted, including fundraising for the UK's National Health Service after being inspired by Captain Tom Moore, the British Army officer who raised millions for charity and died at age 100 the day before this interview.

"Captain Tom, obviously he was doing his walking challenge, we (Team GB) decided to do a create donate, so we were creating scenes on the floor, getting as creative as you can, and you'd take a picture and then donate."

She also volunteered as an NHS responder, which involved telephoning older people within the UK – just to check up on them, so they wouldn't feel so isolated during the lockdown.

But now, with less than 150 days until the beginning of the Games, training is in full flow. Team selection won't be decided until May, but that doesn't stop an athlete who has bounced back from the hardest challenges from doing everything in her power to be ready.

Now she's in the right place, she can concentrate 100 per cent on making her dreams come true.

As she herself says: "Don't be afraid to dream and don't be afraid to chase after that dream. There are going to be hurdles, but the hurdles are made to jump over."

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