Amy Tinkler: 'I’d give up my Olympic medal if I could change what gymnastics has done to me'

For Amy Tinkler, Britain’s youngest Olympian in Rio who stunned the gymnastics world when she won a bronze medal, it all ended in tears, alone in her room at the national headquarters in Lilleshall.

Without telling anyone, she climbed into her car and set off home to escape the sport that had dragged her into such a dark place. Gymnastics had broken her.

It was at the end of another day’s training with the British squad where yet again she says she was criticised for her performance, told she needed to lose weight and told she needed to get fitter. That evening on the phone to her mother, she cried constantly for three hours.

“My Mam was like Amy, get in your car and come home. She thought it was safer for me to drive home in that state," she says.

"I was in such a dark place then that I think my parents were kind of worried for me. And they just wanted me home."

At six-years-old, Tinkler was already being recognised for her skill in the sport. Credit: Amy Tinkler

Were they concerned that she was in danger of harming herself that night?

“I've never had in my head, anything like that, but the place I was in that specific night, they were worried and who knows what would have happened if I did stay there. I mean, I really wasn't in a good place.

"And the fact that my parents think it's safer to drive at midnight to drive home, than for me to stay in a room, it speaks volumes.”

Turning her back on the sport she loved was understandable when you listen to the catalogue of misery at the hands of those who were supposed to support her. It was not as if she suffered in silence either; many times she reached out but she says nothing ever changed.

The saddest indictment of all is that she would happily hand back the bronze medal she won in Rio if that could take away all the pain she endured in her career; body-shaming, emotional abuse and training on injuries.

“I would give up that medal to not have gone through what I did, which is really sad," she says.

"Obviously getting an Olympic medal is like not a normal thing. Not many people can say they've got an Olympic medal and the fact that I'd just rather not have that, to have gone through what I went to, it's really sad.”

Watch in full: ITV News Sports Editor Steve Scott's exclusive interview with Amy Tinkler

Amy first walked into a gym as a two-year-old; she fell in love with it very quickly and it wasn’t too long before she started winning trophies.

By the age of seven she was competing at national finals but she remembers it was when she reached 12 that it started getting noticeably tougher.

By tougher she means longer hours in the gym and coaches becoming intolerant of any injuries. This led to her keeping quiet if she was struggling or in discomfort.

Tinkler says training got noticeably tougher from just 12-years-old. Credit: Amy Tinkler

“I've always just wanted to please people and to know that your coaches are disappointed or they're going to ignore you or just like for the fear of being shouted at, because something hurts. I mean, it's not great and it has long term effects on you as well.”

So, how did she cope with that fear of speaking up?

“It normally ends up in like you cry in and then they ask ‘what's wrong?’ but because I was too scared to say anything, I'd just cry. And I got told a lot at the time that I was a baby.”

But once she became a teenager it was the culture of body shaming and obsession with weight that she found most damaging.

Weighed constantly she recalls one time being  told she needed to lose some weight or she wouldn’t be allowed to enter a major competition.

“So, within that week all I was allowed to eat was two Weetabix for breakfast, chicken salad for lunch, chicken salad for dinner," she says.

Success again for Tinkler at the British Espoir in 2011. Credit: Amy Tinkler

She added: "I had to go to a private gym everyday, swim 20 lengths and sit in a sauna for half an hour.

"I think I ended up losing two and a half kilos in a week at 13-years-old and that for me was a big turning point in how I looked at food and how I looked at my weight.”

For much of her time in the British squad the most senior and most celebrated coach was Amanda Reddin, who has stepped aside from her current role as national head coach pending an investigation into complaints made against her.

Allegations she denies.

Team GB coach Amanda Reddin. Credit: British Gymnastics

Tinkler says Reddin often commented on her weight; that she was too heavy and she needed to get fitter. She remembers one particular incident with the British squad during a training camp ahead of the world championships. She says Reddin spoke to the whole team after cleaners had found sweet wrappers in the girls’ bedrooms.

“Amanda came over to us and was like, I can be a bitch when I want to be a bitch and this is one of them times and basically just went psycho at us for having sweet wrappers in our rooms.

"There was a girl there who she liked the look of, her body shape was ideal for her and she said, you should all look like this girl. But not one gymnast has the same body shape. We got told that our bodies are very similar to the Americans and that they look good and they look muscly and we got told that we just look fat.”

Another senior coach Colin Still was also there that day.

Last week Tinkler published emails he’d sent describing her as looking “a little heavy.’ He had also written, after misreading her data “I will get back to my skiing knowing that Amy is not turning into a fat dwarf.”

A few days later he apologised to her but only for misunderstanding her readings.

She remembers one time when she told Still that she was feeling hungry, he replied: “Oh well, you’re not training this afternoon so you don’t need to eat too much, as long as you look like a lettuce leaf you’re doing well.”

And on another occasion after Amy had spent a night in hospital with severe food poisoning she claims both Still and Reddin made light of it.

“Amanda turned around and said ‘any excuse not to train’ and Colin remarked ‘well at least you will have lost weight, now try not to put it back on.’”

That unhealthy relationship with her weight has stayed with her since quitting gymnastics.

“I haven’t stepped on the scales for about a year since I’ve retired and the thought of going on the scales and weighing myself now is terrifying.”

In response to these allegations, Colin Still issued the following statement: "I feel genuinely devastated if any comments I have made have hurt Amy or any other gymnasts I have coached.

"I do not recall or have record of making these comments attributed to me two years ago. An investigation is ongoing which I fully support and will be submitting all relevant information and evidence to".

Great Britain's Amy Tinkler on the beam during the World Cup of Gymnastics at The O2, London. Credit: PA

Tinkler’s troubles extended beyond her treatment at national level. She had also become very unhappy about what she described as the “toxic environment” at her home gym in South Durham.

After the Rio Games she became desperate to leave but each time she broached the subject, Reddin told her to stay put and to give it one more go, as that was where she became successful.

Eventually Tinkler did move to South Essex where instantly she says she was happier under new coach Scott Hann. But the fallout she left behind was poisonous.

Gymnasts she says were told not to contact her, people posted on social media that she was ungrateful, that she had got too big headed and had stars in her eyes.

Tinkler with her bronze medal from the Rio Olympics, as she returns for training at South Durham Gymnastics Club. Credit: PA

Is there any truth in that?

“No, not at all and I’d like to think the people that I was close to would have known that as well but even still they believe that and they don’t speak to me because of that.”

But it was not just being ostracised online.

“I did nothing wrong and my parents did nothing wrong and my parents worry about walking down the street because what if someone says something to them? And I don't want to go out because what if someone comes up to me and says, why did you do this? Why did you leave after everything? Why should I feel like that?”

Tinkler is still waiting for the outcome of an investigation into complaints about her time in South Durham.

The club itself told ITV News: "South Durham Gymnastics takes any allegation of abuse or mistreatment very seriously, and we categorically deny any allegation(s) of abuse and mistreatment of any of our gymnasts."

Tinkler found a new lease of life under her new coach Scott Hann after the Rio games but still her battles with Amanda Reddin continued, especially when it came to training on injuries or when exhausted.

In fact she blames Reddin for a serious ankle injury that caused her to miss the Commonwealth Games when she was in the form of her life.

She was tired at the time of her injury and didn’t think she should have been taking part in a competition, or training but resting. 

“I just remember feeling my ankle just go. And it just rolled. And I laid on the floor and I kind of basically, I torn it so bad that I'd also torn all the nerves in my ankle."

I ask Amy whether she blamed Reddin for that injury, “yeah” she whispers. And for missing the Commonwealth Games? Again, “yeah.”

Tinkler was winning medals from a young age. Credit: Amy Tinkler

On her long road to recovery Amy says Reddin was less than sympathetic: “Not once did she ever take into account how I was feeling or how upset I was with the situation and how I lost my dream of going to a Commonwealth Games.

"It was always, but you should be doing this by now and it’s been over the time-frame it should have been and you need to lose weight and you're too too heavy, you need to get fitter. I know your shoulder hurts but bars are the only thing you can do at the minute and that's the only thing that'll get you fit. There was never any support at all from Amanda during that point in my career.”

Responding to these latest allegations Reddin commented in a statement: “I agreed with British Gymnastics to temporarily step aside from my role as Head National Coach to allow an investigation to proceed into claims about my conduct as a coach.

"The investigation is underway and being completed by an external independent legal expert.

"I am keen for this to conclude and will be fully supportive of the independent investigator by submitting all relevant information and evidence I have in response to these allegations.”

Amy did reveal her struggles to British Gymnastics performance director James Thomas, she says he said something revealing to her at the outset: “Be careful what you tell me because I can’t unhear things.”

That meeting resulted in British Gymnastics paying for their Olympic medallist to have psychology sessions, but again according to Amy nothing else was done.

Thomas told ITV News today that he did advise how Amy could report her concerns and devised ways to continue her career:

“I held a series of meetings with Amy and her mother during 2019. During these meetings it is documented that I consistently advised Amy of the British Gymnastics complaints process and other external routes whereby she could submit complaints and I actively encouraged her to make any such submissions.

"In these meetings and follow up correspondence I offered further advice and ideas on how Amy could find ways to move forwards in both her gymnastics training and future career and also highlighted the continued support that British Gymnastics would put in place for her."

Amy has been engaged in a very public battle with British Gymnastics following formal complaints she made about her treatment. During various posts on social media she has accused the governing body of lying to her about the process and hanging gymnasts out to dry.

An open letter to the Chief Executive did not receive a direct response although last week Jane Allen did apologise to her via an email.

“I have no idea what Jane Allen does," she says.

"I’m sure she should be someone we can go to. She’s not, no one at British Gymnastics anyone feels comfortable going to.”

Jane Allen took over as CEO of British Gymnastics in 2010.

She thinks a clear out of the governing body’s leadership might help but even if that happened she says there is so much damage to be repaired.

“They've got a big job to build trust in gymnasts again; they could be the nicest coach and the most approachable CEO in the world, but us as gymnasts have lost complete trust in that and it’s going to take a lot for us to build that trust again.”

In response to Amy’s allegations British Gymnastics told ITV News in a statement: “The incidents recounted by Amy are completely unacceptable in our sport. Investigations are already underway into a number of these claims.

"These allegations, and any additional information Amy wishes to submit, will be provided to the relevant investigations.”

Amy Tinkler in action at the 2016 Olympics. Credit: PA

Amy’s dream of a second Olympic Games is a long-lost ambition and she’s still getting counselling from mental health professionals. She says various the social media posts she’s made recently about how she’s been treated have made her a little stronger.

She’s hoping telling her story to a much wider audience on television will prove to be therapeutic too. She’s also hoping her voice, added to the many who’ve already made themselves heard, will make gymnastics a healthier and happier place.

“I'm ready to just move on with my life now," she says.

"And I'm working alongside my psychologist and I'm just hoping that it's not long before I can put that all to the back of my mind and I can start to enjoy the good experiences I had in gym, like the Olympic games and start to appreciate them."

"All I want to do is protect the next generation of gymnasts coming up and gymnasts should ever have to go through what myself and the other gymnasts have had to go through. And if nothing else, by me speaking up can change that then that's all I can do.

"But for me, that's the most important thing that no one should ever have to go through this.”

The young woman who first walked into a gym as a wide-eyed two year old to begin a love affair that ended in heartache, has finally found her voice.

The NSPCC is running a confidential helpline for concerns of abuse in British gymnastics. They can be reached on 0800 056 0566.