Black History Month 2021
As we come to the end of Black History Month, we have devoted this time to further our understanding of the part black British gymnasts have played in the history of British Gymnastics. This article focuses on the many amazing black British gymnastics pioneers who have paved the way for future generations. Our aim has been to make this article definitive in terms of firsts, but as always, we are open to corrections and updates, so, please feel free to contribute wherever possible.
1960’s to 1980’s – The early pioneers
The UK had black gymnasts training before this period but it wasn’t until this time when we had a first black gymnast win a national title. In 1967, Tony Birkhead was part of the winning team from Huddersfield in the Adams’ Shield, the Men’s British Team title. He was coached by Stan Booth, legendary coach who went on to set up Continental Sports. As far as is known, Tony was the first black gymnast to win a gold medal in a British Championship.
In 1979, Joe Fraser from the Birmingham Athletic Club became the first black British gymnast to win a medal at the Coca Cola International Event at Wembley. He went on to study and teach music as well as coach gymnastics and then became involved with coach education within British Gymnastics.
In 1984, Kathy Williams became Great Britain’s first black Olympic gymnast in L.A. Kathy was selected to represent GB at the Moscow Olympics but due to injury, she was not able to go. Her time finally came in 1984 as she was again selected and competed at the ’84 Olympics in Los Angeles; one of her proudest moments. Previously, she had been the first black British gymnast to take part in the Junior European Championships where she caused a stir as the first black gymnast to take part in a women’s major international event. Kathy spent many years in the sport representing Great Britain at 3 World Championships, the Senior European Championships and finally the World Student Games in 1987. Following her gymnastics career, she became a dancer and is now the director of RJC Dance.
“Kathy (Williams) in a Great Britain tracksuit was the flag bearer for all young black kids in gymnastics”
Photo Alan Burrows
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1990’s – The first medals beyond our shores
Louise Redding (born in 1974) trained at Park Wrekin Gymnastics club. She was the first British black gymnast to medal at a Commonwealth Games as part of the 1990 England team. She came 2nd in the British Championships in the same year. Later in the same year, she was the top British gymnast in the All-Around at the European Championships finishing 25th place.
Aicha McKenzie, born in London in 1977, was a member of the Westminster Rhythmic Gymnastics Club. In 1991, she became the Junior British Champion, the first black gymnast to hold this title. At the age of 17, she represented England in the 1994 Commonwealth Games where she won 3 bronze medals for the ball, the hoop and the All-Around, the first black British rhythmic gymnast to medal at a Commonwealth Games. Aicha went on to become a dancer, choreographer & model. In 2013 she was recognised as one of Britain’s most influential black people by 10 Downing Street.
Marvin Campbell was inspired by fellow Mancunian Kathy Williams. Marvin said that Kathy in a Great Britain tracksuit was ‘the flag bearer for all young black kids in gymnastics’. Marvin became the first black British Men’s Artistic Gymnastics Champion in 1993, winning again in 1995. He had previously been a member of the 1992 Great Britain team at the Barcelona Olympics making him the first British black male gymnast to achieve this. He also competed in several World and European Championships.
After leaving gymnastics, Marvin became a stunt man and was the first person to be awarded 3 Taurus World Stunt Awards (the Oscars of the stunt industry). His stunt work has led to several Taurus and SAG nominations and 6 award wins including Outstanding Stunt Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture (Harry Potter, Inception, The Bourne Ultimatum) and Best Fight (The Dark Knight, Inception) and Best High Work (Casino Royale).
Read Marvin’s full story in his own words.
Zita Lusack was born in Aylesbury in 1977. Zita trained at Heathrow Gymnastics Club where she was coached by Michele & Vince Walduck and Russian gymnast and World Champion – Natalia Ilienko-Jarvis. In 1994, she became the first black Women’s Artistic British Champion. She was the first black English gymnast to win a gold medal at the 1994 Commonwealth Games as part of the team of Jacky Brady, Karin Szymko and Annika Reeder. This was the first time that British gymnasts had won gold at a Commonwealth Games. She represented Great Britain at four World Championships, 2 European Championships, as well as the Commonwealth Games where she also secured a silver and a bronze medal. She is unique in that she was the 1998 Trios British Champion in Aerobics, still representing Heathrow Gymnastics Club.
After retiring she joined a group working at the Dome (the O2 Arena) for the 2000 celebration. She stayed there for 2 years and then joined Cirque du Soleil where she was in the show ‘Alegria’ for 3 years. She then went to the British College of Osteopathic Medicine (BCOM) for 4 years to train. She has been an Osteopath ever since.
Read Zita’s full story in her own words.
2000’s onwards – European, World and Olympic history makers
Harrow-born son of Zimbabwean parents Kanukai Jackson was the 2nd black male gymnast to be crowned British Champion. He won twice, first in 2000 and then in 2002. He was coached by Carole Ford of Harrow and later Eddie Van Hoof when in centralised training at Lilleshall. Along with fellow team members, he won a gold medal in the team event at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. In 2002 he was the first black British gymnast to medal at a European Championships when he came 3rd on vault. After his retirement, Kanukai joined Cirque du Soleil for a period and is now coaching gymnastics in the UK.
1989 born Louis Smith found himself at Huntingdon Gymnastics Club under the tutelage of current National Coach – Paul Hall at a young age. Together they would go on to make history. After making his way through the junior ranks and showing a particular skill for pommels, he won gold for England at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. He followed Scot Steve Frew as the second British black gymnast to achieve an individual gold at a Commonwealth Games.
In 2008, he made Olympic history becoming the first British gymnast to win an individual apparatus medal at an Olympic Games. He was the first black British gymnast to compete in 3 Olympic Games and the first British gymnast of any origin to medal in 3 consecutive Olympics, winning bronze 2008, silver 2012 and silver again on the pommel horse in 2016. There are only seven male gymnasts who have medalled on the same apparatus at 3 consecutive Olympics with Max Whitlock also being one of them. Louis has since forged a career for himself in show business, kick-started by winning the 2012 Strictly Come Dancing show on the BBC.
Beside Louis Smith, only 6 other male gymnasts have medalled on the same apparatus at 3 consecutive Olympics – Abliazin, Andrianov, Hambuchen, Urzica, (Max) Whitlock and Xiaopeng.
Cementing GB’s new World order
Joe Fraser has come through the junior ranks to win the senior British Championships in 2017. Joe is related to the above Joe Fraser. Joe’s father is a cousin of the more senior Joe Fraser. Both Joes are from the main Birmingham gymnastic club, which is now called the City of Birmingham Gymnastics Club. He competed at the Stuttgart World Championships in 2019 where he became the first-ever black British gymnast to be World Champion, winning gold in the parallel bars final. He went on to be a member of Team GB for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics placing 9th in the men’s All-Around final.
Becky Downie, born 1992 went to Nottingham Gymnastics Club. She had great success particularly on A-bars and beam. In 2008 & 2009 she became British Champion. In 2014 she won the title for the Asymmetric Bars at the Commonwealth Games, then won the gold for this apparatus at the European Championships and again at the 2016 European Championships; the first black British gymnast to do so. She has a unique bar skill named after her which is listed in the Code of Points. She competed at the Olympic Games in 2008 finishing 12th in the All-Around final, then the highest position ever for any British gymnast at an Olympic Games since 1908 when Walter Tysall won silver.
Ellie Downie, the younger sister of Becky born in 1999 and also trained at Nottingham. She made history in 2016 when she won all four individual titles at the World Cup; the first gymnast to do so since 1975 when Ludmilla Tourischeva performed at the 1st World Cup in London. She became British Champion in 2017, making her the first to follow a sister or brother to the British Championships title. (Half brothers Jack and Arthur Whitford won their titles stretching from 1928 to 1949). In that same year she became the All-Around European Champion, another first for a British female gymnast. In 2016 the sisters again made history by both being on the British Olympic team, where she managed to make the All-Around final and 13th spot.
Elliott Browne was born in 1997 in Luton. His father is a first generation British West Indian. He says that he started gymnastics when he was 5, originally in Men’s Artistic and Trampolining before switching to Tumbling and progressing from there. He started competing for GBR as a tumbler at 15 years old. He then went back to diving, another of his skills and trained 6 days a week as well as gymnastics training. He then had to make a choice; he chose Tumbling.
He won the junior world championship in 2014. Kath Peberdy, British Gymnastics national coach, suspects that he was the first black junior world champion. In 2018 he won the Senior British Tumbling title, the first black tumbler to win the title. He won the silver medal at the WC in 2018 at St Petersburg and repeated this achievement in 2019 at the Tokyo World Championships – another first for a black British gymnast.