The Gadirova twins: Best friends and Olympic bronze medalists

Dublin-born Jessica and Jennifer juggled Covid and GCSEs to stun the world in Japan

Jessica (L) and Jennifer Gadirova stunned Japan as they took an Olympics bronze medal. Photograph: Jamie Squire/Getty

Jessica (L) and Jennifer Gadirova stunned Japan as they took an Olympics bronze medal. Photograph: Jamie Squire/Getty

 

Early on a Friday morning in a large, open gymnasium in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, Jessica and Jennifer Gadirova are standing a few metres apart on a springy blue floor, preparing for take off. They have convinced the photographer to shoot them doing handsprings. The hope is that they will co-ordinate so well, the camera will capture the identical twins in identical poses mid-air; backs arched like horseshoes, hands about to reach the floor, legs stretched, feet pointed like ballerinas.

The countdown begins. On a second-floor viewing platform, a crowd of parents and small children, here for a pre-school gymnastics class, watches in anticipation. Three, two, one. The children are transfixed, probably unaware they are watching two Olympic bronze medallists in action. The jumps look co-ordinated enough to me – but did it work for the camera? Not this time, it turns out.

This is the Gadirova twins’ first magazine photoshoot and I can feel their excitement. In addition to acrobatics on the floor, they suggest poses on the beam and bars – all sorts of kicks, handstands and jumps. Their Olympic-level work ethic shines through.

“I could get my leg straighter,” Jessica suggests after doing a kick on a beam, and back on it she hops. When it’s time for a solo portrait, the twin not being photographed will take her phone and proudly document the other’s turn in the spotlight. There’s a fierce commitment to equality between them. If the photographer places one twin in front, they’ll ask for another set of pictures, this time switching places. “We’re the twins, but it’s nice to be recognised as individuals,” Jennifer tells me later.

Jessica and Jennifer won over the public even before the Tokyo Games began. They were identical 16-year-old students who had just finished their GCSEs, and about to live their Olympic dream. Just stepping on to that flight to Tokyo – the longest plane ride they’d been on – caused butterflies. For everyone watching from home, the Gadirovas’s excitement was visible in the way they tumbled, cheered and hugged each other, and stood on the podium to receive bronze for Britain in women’s team gymnastics (the country’s first medal in the event in 93 years).

Jessica (L) and Jennifer Gadirova at the premier of the new James Bond film in September. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty
Jessica (L) and Jennifer Gadirova at the premier of the new James Bond film in September. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty

Watching them prepare to compete, I was struck by how much younger than everyone else they looked. Though as they stepped up to perform, that distinction vanished. Twisting in the air and hanging on bars, they appeared completely at ease, delighted to show the world what they could do.

Since coming back, they’ve attended the premiere of the new James Bond film, appeared on Blue Peter, had two purple double-decker buses in Aylesbury named after them, and turned 17. People pay for their meals at restaurants and ask for autographs (“I don’t feel that special,” Jessica says). And their friends have finally realised what the twins are up to when they say they’re at practice. “One of my friends said, ‘I knew you always trained. I never knew what you were training for,’” Jessica says with a smile. Jennifer nods. “People in my class, a few years back, were like, ‘How good are you at gymnastics?’”

Jessica and Jennifer began training aged six. Their parents, Natig and Iona, moved from Azerbaijan to London in 2001, then to Dublin for work in 2004, where the twins were born, before moving to Coventry. There, they were put in classes. “We were crazy kids just jumping on everything,” Jessica remembers. Their mum and dad, who runs a small logistics company, “put us into loads of sport, but gymnastics is the one we stuck with and loved the most”. They moved to London, then to Aylesbury when they were 12, where they continued intense training in gymnastics. What do they love about it? “The big amazing skills,” Jennifer says. “I love to perform, go to these big competitions and show the world what I can do.”

The twins found out they had been selected for the Olympics only in May. Getting to that moment involved an arduous training regime, made more complicated by Covid. A case in their school last winter drove home the seriousness of the pandemic – and its potential impact on the twins’ Olympic dreams. Though the school remained open, they got permission to take their classes and GCSEs remotely. When lockdown restrictions meant they could not train in the gym, they brought equipment home and practised in their garage. Did they get bored of being stuck at home, unable to see their class-mates? “We did have each other,” Jessica replies, looking at her sister. “She’s my best friend.”

Their bond is strong. Throughout our conversation, they’ll often look at each other, back each other up and finish each other’s sentences, although they like to be seen as individuals. It’s said that Jennifer is the quiet one and Jessica the loud one: when I’m there, Jessica enthusiastically documents the photoshoot for Instagram. They’re full of energy and are particularly animated when talking about Tokyo or the strangeness of their new fame. What do they do apart? There’s a pause. “Um,” they both say. “That’s hard.” Then Jessica adds: “I feel like we do nearly everything together.”

How did they feel when standing on the podium? “Shock, disbelief,” Jennifer begins. “Just so many emotions flowing through, like happiness,” Jessica continues. “You feel like you’re on top of the world, you’re in shock, you’re in a dream.” – Guardian

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