Rebecca Tunney was only five when her mother asked her to reach a life-changing decision. Mum told me, “If you want to do something as a career, you need to try and choose it now,” recalls Tunney, in a soft Mancunian accent that is barely audible above the hustle and bustle of Team GB’s Preparation Camp in Loughborough. She smiles shyly as she remembers her five-year-old self precociously declaring: “I want to go to the Olympics and meet Beth Tweddle!” Which is how she now finds herself sharing an Olympic stage with her idol Tweddle who at the age of 27 is her senior by 12 years.
A decade after she hung up her ballet shoes, Tunney, 15, is the youngest athlete in the British team. Clad in an official tracksuit that has been altered to fit her elfin frame – and wide-eyed at the cameras and microphones trained on her – she seems even younger than her tender years. “It’s a privilege,” she murmurs. “I never thought I’d be here in my wildest dreams.”
Gymnasts today must be 16, or turn 16 within the calendar year, so Tunney is about as young as they come. But on the apparatus, she transforms into a composed, confident performer of breakneck tumbles, crisp leaps and dizzying somersaults. Like her role model Tweddle, she trains at the City of Liverpool Gymnastics Club twice a week, leaving school at lunchtime for seven-hour sessions on the bars, beam, vault and floor.
This self-assurance impressed her coaches at the Olympic test event in January, her debut as a senior. “We expected her to go there and test out the venue on behalf of the team,” explains gymnastics director Tim Jones, who admits that 12 months ago Tunney wasn’t high on his list of Olympic prospects.
Yet to his surprise, and the delight of the crowd at the North Greenwich Arena, Tunney qualified for the bars final and finished fifth. A month later, she was on trial again, this time competing against the world’s top gymnasts and for a crowd of 15,000 at the American Cup in New York.
“She was sent to America to gain experience on a big international floor,” explains Claire Duffy, her coach of five years. Tunney responded beautifully on the vault and uneven bars – but then fell off the beam three times. Her Olympic hopes seemed shattered until, displaying an impressive strength of character, she picked herself up and scored a personal best for her floor routine.
Four months later, she landed gold at the all-round title at the British championships. Now Tunney will be performing on the biggest stage of all. “I’ll just try to keep my breathing steady, my head focused and forget anything that distracts me,” murmurs Tunney before scuttling off to rejoin her team-mates, relieved to be escaping the limelight.
The Gymnastics Women’s Team Final is on this afternoon at 4.30pm on BBC1 and BBC Olympics 1
Beth Tweddle: I nearly gave up gymnastics after heartbreak in Beijing