The little girl who wanted to fly is sinking ever deeper into the couch. Her Olympic bronze medal is nowhere to be seen, her head is in her hands and, frankly, it’s all so heart-breaking. She just doesn’t know if her twisted, complicated feelings, and all the damage, can ever be fixed.
‘What has happened to me? Why am I like this?’ Amy Tinkler asks, and it’s a mystery that needs to be solved with urgency, because if the allegations she makes against British Gymnastics in these pages are accurate, then it truly was a horrible thing that was allowed to happen.
‘I want to get better, I am trying,’ she says. ‘It’s just… it’s a mess. Even now I can barely look at a set of weighing scales – we had to take them out of the house. If I’m offered a salad I have a breakdown because my head is wired to think I’m being called fat.’
Amy Tinkler has spoken out about the abuse she felt she suffered at British Gymnastics
Tinkler (L) won Olympic bronze at Rio 2016, finishing behind four-time gold medallist Simone Biles (C) and fellow American Aly Raisman (R), but says the success was not worth the struggle
The 20-year-old was ‘terrified’ of head female coach of British Gymnastics, Amanda Reddin (L)
Sportsmail contacted British Gymnastics about Amy’s claims.
In response, Reddin said: ‘In August, I agreed with British Gymnastics to temporarily step aside from my role to allow an investigation to proceed into claims about my conduct. The investigation is being completed by an external independent expert. I am keen for this to conclude and will be fully supportive by submitting all relevant information and evidence I have in response to these allegations.’
A British Gymnastics statement said: ‘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.’
Colin Still said: ‘I feel genuinely devastated if any comments I made have hurt Amy or any other gymnasts. 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.’
For a moment there is only silence. But on she goes because that’s what Amy does. This is her first newspaper interview since she went on social media on July 14 to join the wave of women criticising British Gymnastics and their handling of welfare complaints.
She followed up with multiple attacks on their ‘lies’, but offered no disclosure of events and specifics, except to reveal it was behind her decision to retire earlier this year, aged only 20.
Today she goes into that dark space with the encouragement of her therapists, who hope it will help her recover.
She will claim she was ‘terrified’ of the celebrated head female coach of British Gymnastics, Amanda Reddin OBE, and what she paints as a regime of relentless ‘fat-shaming’ and bullying across more than five years, which led to injuries.
She will allege senior figures at British Gymnastics, including their performance director James Thomas, knew how she felt and yet nothing changed.
And she will recall the night in May 2019 when she fled from the British Gymnastics base at Lilleshall for the final time, with tears streaming down her face.
Asked for one word to describe Lilleshall, she says: ‘Prison.’
By the time she is done, after two hours of talking, one of Britain’s greatest ever gymnasts will utter a sentence that should force everyone within the British Olympic system, from UK Sport and down, to have a long think.
‘The medal wasn’t worth it,’ she says. ‘I would give up my whole Olympic experience to have never gone through this, and for any other gymnast to not. Nothing is worth what I have been through and what I am still dealing with.’
Young star Tinkler (pictured in July 2013) was representing Britain at junior level at the age of 11
Growing up near Durham, Tinkler immediately took to gymnastics and competed from seven
Amy was a happy and hyper kid growing up in Bishop Auckland, near Durham. From the age of two, all she wanted to do was get herself up into the air, and better still if folk were watching.
‘The first moment I was in the gym, I just loved it,’ she says. ‘I always had too much energy and I know it sounds silly but I just wanted to fly. You spin around a bar, take off, and when you’re doing it right, you’re high in the air and have total control.
‘My first competition was when I was seven. It was a little regional one with 100 people watching and I came second. I showed off the whole time.’
By the age of 11, Amy was representing Britain at junior level. At 16, she was the youngest member of the gymnastics team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she was not expected to make the final but, to the theme music of Pretty Woman, she flipped and flew to a floor bronze behind the great Simone Biles and Aly Raisman. She was only the second British woman in history after Beth Tweddle to win one.
There’s a lovely picture of that podium scene in the kitchen of Amy’s parents’ home. Earlier in the day, before we met, Amy looked at it and cried thinking about how the medal was made.
For her, it takes the conversation to Amanda Reddin, a coach of major renown who was appointed to the lead female role at British Gymnastics in 2012.
‘I was terrified of her,’ Amy says. ‘She has a presence and nothing’s good enough for her. The weight stuff started from her when I about 13. She was obsessed.
‘I would be in Lilleshall for maybe four days a month by then, and towards the end, from 2017 onwards, I was there a lot more, and the whole time weight was almost a daily thing with her.
She was the youngest member of the gymnastics team at Rio 2016 and did not expect to medal
To the theme music of Pretty Woman, she took bronze behind the great Biles and Aly Raisman
‘I would suck my tummy any time I saw her. If you lost weight, she wanted you to lose more. I get that we need to monitor our weight, and there was the odd time where I’d sit down (with the nutritionist) and could do with losing a little bit, but with Amanda, it would be said even if everyone else was happy with my weight.
‘I remember when I was 15, before the worlds, the cleaners found sweet wrappers in our rooms, and she (Reddin) sat seven or eight of us down in the gym. Another international coach (Colin Still) was there and she (Reddin) went psycho. She was saying, “You girls have similar bodies to the Americans but they look muscly and you guys just look fat”.
‘She said to us, “If you’re going to eat sweets, make sure you eat them in front of your teammates so they know you’re the one to blame when we don’t do well”. All girls are different shapes and sizes but they had an idea of how you should look.
‘We would be weighed at the start of every camp at Lilleshall and eventually I wouldn’t eat the night before. From 14 to 19 I drank lemon juice before bed every night because I read that the acid burns fat in your stomach while you sleep. Before weigh-ins, I wouldn’t eat lunch or dinner the day before.
‘That was the environment.’
The tension with Reddin, and her scrutiny on Amy, seemed to intensify after Rio 2016, when the gymnast left her club at South Durham and joined up with Max Whitlock’s coach Scott Hann at South Essex.
It is necessary to note at this juncture that Amy is awaiting the outcome of a complaint against South Durham which she lodged with British Gymnastics in December 2019. Issues with Reddin were included in the complaint and were separately dismissed earlier this year, which enraged Amy, though the coach has ‘temporarily stepped aside’ from her role while claims against her from other gymnasts are investigated.
Tinkler recalls how Reddin berated a group of athletes after cleaners found sweet wrappers
Another coach Colin Still (pictured) is alleged to have said Tinkler getting food poisoning was good for her weight
In continuing her portrayal of life within the elite British set-up, Amy paints the grimmest of pictures about how her body image was eroded day by day in her teenage years, and gradually progressed into the serious mental health issue it is now.
‘In 2018 I got food poisoning and I was in hospital,’ she says. ‘When I went back, Amanda was like, “Any excuse to not train”, and then Colin (Still, another national coach) said, “Oh well, at least you’ll have lost weight and you’ll look skinnier now, just try and keep that weight off”. I was praised for being ill.’
An attempt at humour?
‘It’s just their way of thinking,’ Amy says. Still told Sportsmail he has no recollection of making the comment.
Amy adds: ‘In 2018, when I was injured, I remember she (Amanda) told me to get on the scales. She stood over me and was like, “You better get used to this because I’m doing this every week”. At this point, I already had a bad relationship with food and my weight and she knew.’
A recurring theme in these allegations is the suggestion from Amy that Reddin did not have sufficient concern for her wider wellbeing. One claim surrounds a significant ankle injury suffered at a World Cup event on March 20, 2018 ahead of the Commonwealth Games.
‘Leading up to the competition I was really tired,’ Amy says. ‘I was having to travel to Lilleshall every week or so by then because Amanda didn’t trust Scott coaching me, even though I’d won every trial for the Commonwealth Games.
Tinkler alleges Reddin’s doubts over an ankle injury stopped her from competing at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games
The tension with Reddin seemed to intensify when Tinkler joined up with Max Whitlock’s coach
‘The competition where I got injured, Scott had asked if I could train at home because he thought it would be beneficial for me to rest. Amanda said no. When I was warming up I went over on my ankle (tearing ligaments) and needed three surgeries (and missed the Commonwealth Games). I believe that would have never happened if Amanda listened to me.’
Amy claims she spoke to support staff repeatedly about her treatment by Reddin. ‘From 2016 onwards I was probably in the doctor’s office crying 100 times,’ she says. ‘The doctors and physios couldn’t have tried harder to help me and the rest of the girls. She just never agreed with them.’
Matters escalated in 2018. Around the time of another ankle surgery, there was one particularly dramatic exchange.
‘My mam said to her in December 2018 that, “Amy is scared of you”, and Amanda didn’t really care. My mam was like, “She is having an operation. She needs care and sympathy not someone giving her little digs”. Amanda said, “I am her coach, not her friend”. I went away to the Canary Islands that Christmas and I was crying my eyes out because I had a sore shoulder and I was scared Amanda would shout at me for it when I was back.
‘My mam called the doctor and arranged a meeting for when we got back about how we would explain it to Amanda. When we then went over to the gym she shouted to me and my mam, “What time do you call this?” We were two minutes late. I said my shoulder hurt and she said, “How can your shoulder hurt when you aren’t doing anything?” I started crying and she said, “If you are going to cry get out of the gym”. I ran out and refused to go back in.’
Amy finally snapped on May 19, 2019.
Tinkler finally snapped in May 2019 and fled British Gymnastics’ base at Lilleshall, which she describes as a ‘prison’
Tinkler also claims Reddin berated her and her mother when she returned from the Christmas break with a shoulder issue
‘It was just a really bad day,’ she says. ‘I’d phoned my parents that night and I could not stop crying. I still had the ankle injury and that meant I was in Lilleshall more. By then, I think Amanda had just had enough of me and wasn’t even speaking to me.
‘I was crying on the phone for three hours, “I mean nothing to her any more”. I felt worthless. My parents decided that the state I was in, it was better me getting in a car at midnight and driving three hours north than staying until morning. They met me halfway and I just cried.’
‘I never thought about harming myself but looking back now, I was in such a dark place, it is worrying to think how it could have gone,’ she says.
‘I would rather not talk about that.’
For Amy, the healing has been slow.
‘I won’t let that memory of the Olympics be ruined by these people, but I just wish it could have all been different,’ she says.
Her frustration is that she has ‘no confidence’ in British Gymnastics’ ability to handle complaints that have come in from women around the sport, past and present, top level and down. ‘They are protecting each other rather than the athletes,’ she says.
In addition to her social-media criticisms of how the organisation have handled her ongoing complaint, and her questions over the position of their CEO Jane Allen, she claims British Gymnastics were aware of her struggles when she was within their system.
‘I spoke to James Thomas (the performance director) on a few occasions. I told him everything and he never did anything about it.’
A statement from Thomas, via British Gymnastics, read: ‘I held a series of meetings with Amy and her mother during 2019. During these meetings 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.
The 20-year-old has demanded an apology from British Gymnastics CEO Jane Allen (above)
Tinkler has been left feeling ‘sick’ by British Gymnastics’ treatment of her formal complaint
‘In these meetings and correspondence I offered further advice on how Amy could move forwards in her gymnastics training and future career and highlighted the support British Gymnastics would put in place for her.’
Indisputably, the shame in all this is an immensely talented woman is out of the sport she loved, and worse still, who knows when she will be healthy?
‘I have been seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist,’ she says. ‘It is still very hard. My relationship with weight isn’t really better.’
‘I have been on scales once since I retired at a doctor’s surgery but we took them out of the house. A year ago my parents asked if I wanted salad and I broke down.’
Amy says she wouldn’t allow any future child of hers to be a gymnast. ‘No way,’ she says. She is equally emphatic in labelling Reddin as ‘one of the main reasons I left the sport’.
It will be interesting to see how much the independent investigation into the treatment of gymnasts, being undertaken by Anne Whyte QC, touches on Amy’s allegations, and what conclusions are drawn from those of so many little children and adults who believed they were mistreated by various figures in the name of sport.
Time will tell what happens next to British Gymnastics, when this is all done. Ditto the girl who loved to fly but is now fighting desperately hard to get off the floor.
The NSPCC is running a confidential helpline for concerns of abuse in British gymnastics. They can be reached on 0800 056 0566. Sportsmail has made a donation to the NSPCC.