Jackie O’Reilly won’t be in Rio de Janeiro to watch her daughter Ellis make her Olympic bow as an Irish gymnast, but the mum of four already knows what it is to burst with pride from afar as her offspring take to the global stage.
Ellis it the outlier among her kids.
Her brothers Frankie and Reggie are both boxers and so too is Jenna, the eldest, who shared in one Irish sport’s most iconic moments when she carried the tricolour into the ExCel Arena in London four years ago before Katie Taylor was presented with her gold medal.
“That was fantastic to see,” says Jackie. “My daughter is a boxer and she had won five ABA titles. She was the only female to be selected to carry the flag for the boxers and she only found out about it about a month before the Games. She said that Katie Taylor is fantastic, a really lovely person and really humble as well. She said that when all the other boxers were fighting, the atmosphere was fantastic but that when Katie Taylor went into that arena, it was just amazing.”
Jackie O’Reilly is ‘soccer mom’. Countless days and night have been spent ferrying her quartet of kids to and from training sessions and competitions. The perseverance of both generations paid off back in April when Ellis claimed her Olympic ticket at the test event in Rio’s HSBC Barra Olympic Arena.
O’Reilly, who is still only 18, can already consider herself a trailblazer as her appearance in Rio will be the first ever by an Irish female gymnast at the Olympics. Jackie O’Reilly struggles for words initially when asked to describe how that feels.
“It’s unbelievable to be able to say that my daughter is going to the Olympics and that she is making history. For all the years that she has trained and dedicated herself to it, it is so rewarding to see her achieve her goal, her ambition. She has been training since she was six. I always knew that she had the dedication to get there. It was more that she had to believe in herself. When she got picked to represent Ireland, that was when I started to believe that she could make it further than just being an elite gymnast and go all the way.”
Her arrival at such an august destination has not been linear. It rarely is.
O’Reilly, who tried her hand at everything from tap to ballet to horse riding before landing on gymnastics, originally represented Great Britain and Northern Ireland before switching allegiance to Ireland thanks to a grandfather born in Armagh.
Performing is in her blood. Jackie O’Reilly swam to a high level and her grandfather was a bare-knuckle fighter. Boxing is in her father Frank’s lineage too, which might explain why mum finds it harder to watch Ellis compete on a mat than the other three inside a ring. “It’s very, very nerve-racking to hope that she is going to stay on course and have a clean competition, but it is just the proudest thing that you can ever imagine. It makes the hairs stand on the back of your neck. It is just a feeling that you can’t explain.”
Jackie knows what it has taken. Like every mum, dad, brother and sister. Ellis O’Reilly has had to sit A-levels before Rio. That has meant days starting with school at 8.30am and ending with the last batch of training almost 12 hours later. Homework has been shoehorned into whatever free classes or spare time she can find. It’s a familiar story among young elite athletes.
Irish diver Natasha McManus, for instance, has spoken before about trying to squeeze study into the car journey between her home in South Dublin and the National Aquatic Centre. It is a difficult balancing act and one that wouldn’t work without a supportive family.
“That is really important because their mind has to be 100% focused and they have to have that happy background,” says Jackie, “to know they have that support and commitment behind them to do well. I always wanted to get them into sports, to keep them out of the wrong things and off the street, to mix with a nice group of people and teach them discipline and teach them you only get out of something what you put into it.”
Ellis O’Reilly is certainly proof of that.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved