Absent from competition for the past few years, 22-year-old Canadian gymnast Jessica Dowling is enjoying her return to competition, starting with a satisfying return at the recent Elite Gym Massilia meet in Marseille, France.
Dowling at the recent Elite Gym Massilia in Marseille
"Even with the surgeries and the state of my knee, I knew I would regret my decision later in life if I didn't try to come back," said Dowling, referring to the issues that kept her out of the sport since 2013.
Dowling trains at Dynamo Gymnastics in Cambridge, Ontario, under coaches Elvira Saadi (1972 and '76 Soviet Olympic team gold medalist) and Denis Vachon. Dowling helped Dynamo place ninth in the Open team standings at the Elite Gym Massilia, held November 11-13 in Marseille. She finished 26th in the Open all-around. Eight years ago in Marseille, she placed eighth all-around. Five years ago in Marseille, Dowling finished 16th all-around in the Elite division.
Born September 9, 1994, in Hamilton, Ontario, Dowling was a steady presence on the Canadian scene as a junior and senior earlier in her career. She placed seventh all-around at the 2008 Canadian Junior Championships, 15th all-around at the 2010 Canadian Championships, first all-around in the Open division at the 2011 Canadian Championships, and 11th all-around at the 2012 Canadian Championships.
Dowling, whose mother was born in the Netherlands, has dual citizenship; she placed fourth all-around at the 2011 Dutch Championships.
Dowling describes her past challenges, and reveals her new motivations and plans, in this IG Online interview.
The Dynamo team at the 2016 Elite Gym Massilia: Brooklyn Moors, Jessica Dowling, Madison Hughes and Emma Spence
IG: It's a surprise to many people that you've returned to competition after a few years in the shadows. What was the reason for your absence, and what was your motivation for returning to competition?
JD: In March 2013, I underwent knee surgery for OCD – a cartilage defect – and a partially torn meniscus. I required a level 3 OATS procedure, as the bone on the lateral side of my knee contained two substantial holes and the cartilage was no longer attached. Due to the amount of work done on my knee and the condition my knee was in, I required a second surgery in October 2013. It took a long time to regain strength in my knee, and the surgeon didn't think I would be able to continue gymnastics. It was a tough two years for me, but I couldn't give it up. I simply love the sport of gymnastics and I can't live without it. It has also been a dream of mine to make the national team and compete for Canada at international competitions. Even with the surgeries and the state of my knee, I knew I would regret my decision later in life if I didn't try to come back.
IG: How satisfied were you with your performance in Marseille, in terms of your expectations?
JD: I was satisfied with my floor and vault. These have been the hardest events to get back, and I am happy I was able to land all my tumbling lines and perform a clean vault. Beam was a little shaky and I did not compete my full start value. However, it was the first event of the day, and I am happy I was able to control my nerves and avoid any major mistakes. I had the most expectations for bars, and was very dissatisfied when I didn't hit my routine the way I had been doing in training. More than that, I am disappointed that, after one major mistake, I let my emotions affect the rest of my routine. I will take this as a learning experience for future competitions.
IG: Having been away from competition for so long, how did nerves affect your performance in Marseille?
JD: I found myself more nervous in the days prior to the competition than I have been in the past. This definitely affected my sleep the night before the meet. I definitely need to compete a few more times in order to feel more comfortable in the competition environment again, but overall, I was pretty happy with how I handled my nerves in Marseille.
IG: Based on your performance in Marseille, what improvements or changes do you plan for upcoming competitions?
JD: I definitely have to work on the details and execution of my performances for upcoming competitions. Being my first competition back, I found myself concentrating harder for the bigger skills and thus, lacked focus on the finer details of my routines, including dance, turns, leaps and jumps, which are just as important.
IG: How is gymnastics more challenging for you than when you were younger?
JD: When I was younger, I recovered faster between training sessions and thus was able to handle a high number of repetitions six days a week. Now, I find I have to balance the harder training sessions with some lighter ones, in order to maintain successful, consecutive weeks of training.
IG: Who coaches you and on which events?
JD: Elvira Saadi and Denis Vachon are my main coaches, coaching me on all four events and traveling with me to competitions. Elvira is the head coach who prepares the training plan for each and every day. I also receive coaching by Sarah Rainey and Jonathan Asada, who work alongside Elvira and Denis in the gym. Finally, we work with a dance and ballet teacher every week.
Dowling in 2011
IG: In the past you competed at the Dutch championships and considered getting approval to compete for the Netherlands. Is that still an option for you? (To read IG Online's 2011 feature on Dowling relating to this topic, click here.)
JD: In 2011, when I was injured during the Canadian selection process for the world championships and other international competitions, I considered getting approval to compete for the Netherlands. Unfortunately this is not an option for me anymore. As much as I love the Netherlands, my home is in Canada. I am also completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph and, in order to combine my studies with gymnastics, I have to be in Canada.
IG: How do you balance your university studies with the training demands of gymnastics?
JD: I am studying nutrition and nutraceutical sciences. In order to manage my studies with my training schedule, I take only six courses a year, instead of the usual eight to 10. This way, I am able to maintain high grades so that I can apply to grad school in the future, and continue training at the elite level. I am taking six classes through the entire year – two in the fall term, two in the winter term, and two in the summer. Most students take four to five classes in the fall and winter term and work during the summer. During the week I live in an apartment in Guelph, Ontario, where I go to school. On weekends I go home and spend time with my family in Dundas, a small town outside Hamilton.
IG: What have the last few years away from competition revealed to you, in terms of why you do gymnastics and why you still have unfinished business in the sport?
JD: The gym is my safe haven, and I do gymnastics because I love it. Having the two knee surgeries and being away from the gym for a year and a half was a miserable time for me. Not only did I miss doing gymnastics, but I knew I hadn't gotten everything out of the sport that I wanted.
International Gymnast magazine's recent coverage of Canadian gymnasts includes:
"Shooting Star" – Jade Chrobok profile (April 2016)
Chrobok and Meixi Semple cover photo inset (March 2016)
"Aiming to Top the Charts" – Maegan Chant interview (October 2013)
"Canadian Beacon" – Ellie Black interview (September 2015)
"Canadian Promise" – Black chat and Robert Watson profile (July/August 2014)
"Canadian Diversity" – Black and Hugh Smith profiles (July/August 2013)
Chat with Christine Peng-Peng Lee (April 2015)
"Sudden Impact" – Victoria Moors interview (January/February 2013)
"Making Tracks" – Scott Morgan profile (December 2013)
Isabela Onyshko profile (July/August 2014)
"Shooting Star" – Megan Roberts profile (April 2015)
Aleeza Yu two-page photo spread (May 2014)
To order back issues, or subscribe to the print and/or digital edition of International Gymnast magazine,