After competing at Glasgow 2014 for her Commonwealth Games debut, Tara Donnelly represented Isle of Man in artistic gymnastics at the Commonwealth Games this year in Birmingham, where she made the All-Around final. Also this year, Tara competed at the British, English and Scottish Championships, winning Gold as a guest in All-Around (Scottish) and Floor (English), and she, once again, represented Isle of Man last year at the Northern European Championships, coming away with the Floor title. For Tara’s first competition back since the pandemic, she competed at the Malta International, where she won All-Around and three apparatus titles, and she has competed at the Island Games a number of times, including in Gotland in 2017, where she won All-Around Gold. Having dual nationality with Ireland and Great Britain, Tara previously qualified for the Irish National team in 2015, and represented Ireland at the European and World Championships and the European Games. At the Isle of Man Sports Awards last year, Tara was named the Sportswoman of the Year, and she is currently studying at Loughborough University for a Finance degree. Tara spoke to us about representing Team Isle of Man at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, her success at this year’s English and Scottish Championships and her time competing at the Island Games.
How was the experience at the recent Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and what was it like staying in the athletes village?
My Commonwealth experience was pretty special – for many reasons. The journey to get there was somewhat of a rollercoaster so being able to be out there, representing the island was a great feeling. I went into the Games with my own personal goals, and being able to showcase the years of hard work and sacrifice was quite rewarding.
The village was pretty cool. Obviously the original athlete village wasn’t complete due to COVID and deadlines, but Birmingham were able to keep that ‘Athlete Village’ feel with the uni campuses, which made the experience great fun. I also got to show my close ones around the village, and they know how much these Games meant to me, so sharing that with them was important to me.
Do you have any stand-out highlights from your time competing as an artistic gymnast for Team Isle of Man in Birmingham and being part of the All-Around final?
As far as my performances went, I know I didn’t have my best days of competition – but being able to make the AA final, despite a pretty tragic qualification was an achievement in itself, and meant I was able to go out and compete some far better routines and prove myself in that final. Again, I made a number of smaller errors in the final, which kept my scores ranking down too but I walked away from it all feeling very proud of not only the competition but the journey too.
What was it like attending the opening/closing ceremony?
I always feel very fortunate to experience both the ceremonies at any Games. Sometimes athletes don’t get the opportunity to go, if it doesn’t fit with their training/competition schedule. But luckily for me, there was enough of a gap between the ceremony and competition to allow me to enjoy both nights. The opening ceremony was a pretty surreal experience – I think that was the moment where I felt like all the hard work to get to this Games was coming to fruition and I felt very proud to be there representing our small island!
How different did you find competing in Birmingham opposed to your debut Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014?
This Games was very different for me in that I felt much more competitive as a gymnast. My first Games, I was 15, it was my first major international and I was just so excited to be there, I was just enjoying the experience with no expectations. This Games, I had a little bit more pressure and more knowledge of what to expect, what potential finals I could make and generally, a far better understanding of my gymnastics. Both Games were special in their own right, but Birmingham maybe tips Glasgow, purely for the journey that got me there.
What do you remember most from being a competitor in Glasgow?
Honestly – not too much! It flies by, and as a young 15 year old, I don’t think I fully soaked it all in! I do know that those Games were the catalyst for my motivation and ambition to have a long international career. They gave me the insight into the top level of the sport and really helped me become the gymnast I’ve become today.
This year, you’ve also competed at the British Championships, English Championships and Scottish Championships, coming out with Gold medals as a guest in All-Around (Scottish) and Floor (English), how were these competitions?
These comps were great fun, and a good series of run outs leading up to the Games. It’s always nice to get across to the mainland to compete, as for me (as an islander) it’s kind of like a holiday! I used these competitions to test out some upgraded skills ahead of the internationals later on in the year.
In 2021, you represented Team Isle of Man at the Northern European Championships, what was it like?
Northern Europeans has to be one of the most memorable competitions of my career. We (the Isle of Man) were able to field a full team at this event, and the girls I was with were great. We train at two different clubs on the island, but at these events we all feel very close. We had no expectations going into this competition, just clean routines. I had a good comp on day one, finished 4th, which was incredible for me. I think I was 0.05 off the Bronze, which is so marginal but this made me really fired up for the finals on day two. I didn’t really go into any of the finals, conscious of winning a medal but I wanted to give it my best shot – and by doing so, I was able to win the Floor title. So that for me, was quite a special moment – I just ran and hugged my sister and started crying!
How was it returning to competitions after the pandemic, where you won numerous medals at Malta International, and can you tell us about winning your medals?
Yes – so lockdown for me, was quite eye-opening in respect to my motivation levels. I actually felt like it got me excited to get back into the gym again after months out. When we eventually were back in the gym training, I found the fitness and Zoom sessions had paid off and I was able to ease into routines quite quickly. Malta was great fun. I used to go as a young gymnast and to be back was cool. I did well to win AA, and three apparatus titles with some pretty good girls there – so I was happy with my performance.
Is there anything you enjoy most about competing at the Island Games and what are some of your highlights from taking part?
The Island Games are a competition very close to my heart. I’ve always enjoyed the Island Games and the fact everyone is from a small nation makes the atmosphere very enjoyable. The Isle of Man usually does quite well at this event, so we don’t have much pressure, just a fun time. The highlight for me from all Island Games I’ve competed at, has to be Gotland 2017 All-Around. I was fortunate to win the All-Around and the medal ceremony was held at the big stage on Games Street, which was the hub of the Games in Gotland. My mum flew out from home, all the way to this tiny island in Sweden and was there to watch me receive my AA medal. So I’m glad I got to share that moment with her.
Can you tell us about some of the other competitions you’ve been involved with over the years?
My parents are both Irish born and raised (and are very patriotic) so this allowed me to hold dual nationality with Ireland and GB. I was lucky enough to qualify to the Irish National team in 2015, and went on to compete for Ireland at the European and World Championships and the European Games. They were all incredible competitions and a dream of mine as a little girl.
Where does your love of gymnastics come from and how did you start?
I started gym when I was seven because my sister wanted to go and my parents put us all in together. My love for the sport just grew over time. Gymnastics is a sport that’s always changing and so is always exciting. You never run out of skills to try – every session is different so that always kept me wanting more growing up.
Did you have any favourite gymnasts that inspired you when growing up?
For me, my favourites were Aliya Mustafina and Ana Porgras. I used to get told I looked like Aliya growing up, so naturally, she became my idol. Her gymnastics is always beautiful, so I found myself quite inspired by her throughout my career.
What is a typical day training for you and can you say about attending Loughborough University?
Training for me obviously varies depending on the point in the season. During comp season, the session is very packed and efficient. Warm-up takes 30 minutes, and then we get straight on to apparatus and are doing routines. My coach would normally say one touch warm-up and then multiple routines with one to show. Bars would usually be three routines, Beam three consecutive to stick or five to stick altogether. Floor is one or two routines depending on the day and Vault, normally five to land. I’d then do conditioning, stretching and finish. We’d do that four days a week and on the fifth, do any corrections needed.
Out of comp season, it’s slightly more relaxed and we work halfs or skill upgrades.
Loughborough Uni have been very supportive with my gym career. With it being renowned for its sporting side, they are good with understanding athletes’ needs. Our on-campus gym facility was recently closed down though, which was very disappointing. We have an alternative off-campus facility now, but it’s sad that the legacy of the ‘blue gym’ has now gone.
Earlier this year, you were awarded the Sportswoman of the Year Award at the 2021 Isle of Man Sports Awards, how did this feel?
Winning SWOTY was a career highlight for me. I’ve been shortlisted quite a number of times but never won it, and honestly, I didn’t go in expecting to win. I knew I’d had a good year of competition, but actually receiving the award was very rewarding and felt like such an achievement for both me, my coach and my gym!
How do you like to spend your time away from your career?
I’m currently studying my Finance degree at Loughborough University, whilst training to become an accountant. In my free time, I like going for coffee, and walks/adventures around our island here, as the scenery is very pretty. I’ve been able to travel quite a lot with gym, so I think I’d like to spend some time travelling a bit more when I eventually retire.
Do you have any competitions coming up or have any that you are targeting that you can tell us about?
For the remainder of the year, I’ve decided to rest from competition. Just to allow my body to have some downtime and to mentally recharge. I have some plans for the next year for British/home nation Championships as well as some internationals, so we’ll see where we go from there 😀.
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