In this latest interview, I talk to British junior Taeja James. Taeja is the reigning English and British junior Champion and trains at City of Birmingham under coach Jody Kime.
Taeja won four British Championships in the compulsory and voluntary age group ranks, before entering the Espoir ranks in 2014 where she took the British bars title as a first year, then in her second year, 2015 finished 3rd AA, as well as taking the vault and bars titles. In the same year, Taeja was called up to the English team for the School Games alongside gymnasts up to two years older than her, and helped her team to the silver medal, making bars and floor finals. She was also, along with club and GB team mate Megan Parker, part of the City of Birmingham team to take the Bill Slater Junior British team title by ten whole marks.
In 2016 Taeja entered the junior ranks, and was selected for her first of many GB internationals. She was part of the British team to travel to the International Gymnix in Canada, she then placed second at the English Championships, taking gold on vault and floor, and silver on beam. Taeja took AA silver again at the British, adding floor bronze in apparatus finals. More internationals followed, gold with the GB junior team at the GB-FRA-SUI-GER international as well as top AA scorer, third on vault and bars, then gold again with the GB team at the GB-ITA-GER junior international. A place on the team for the Junior European Championships was her reward, the only first year junior to be selected. Taeja competed on all pieces at Junior Europeans helping her team to the team silver medal. Finshing her first junior year with team silver and beam bronze at the Olympic Hopes Cup, then a big result when she took floor silver at the Elite Massilia against senior gymnasts including Olympic medalists.
This year Taeja has taken the English AA title along with vault, bars and beam gold, as well as the British AA title and again almost a clean sweep when she also won vault, bars, and floor, as well as taking silver on beam. She recently took bronze with the British junior team at the GB-ITA-FRA-GER-SUI international, as well being the joint highest AA scorer, then at EYOF she finished fifth with the team, and 5th in the AA final.
Packed with talent, well paced and well coached, as Taeja comes toward the end of her junior career and heads for the senior ranks as of January, should she be able to fulfil her potential, she is one of GB’s strongest gymnasts in the making and could become a member of senior British teams for the major championships through to Tokyo and all the way through the following quad to Paris.
Hi Taeja, and thank you for for taking the time to do this interview. If we go right back to the beginning, how did you get started in gymnastics, did you take to it quickly, and how early were you selected for a higher level of training?
I was four when I first started gymnastics, I did rec sessions to begin with and then one day Jody came over and asked me to try and do a pull up on bars, I then did a circle up and afterwards was invited into development squad
At level 4, your first national compulsory and voluntary finals, you placed 27th overall in the combined British Championships. A year later at level 3, you really made your mark, and were British voluntary champion, and second overall in the combined championships. Would you say there was anything specific that caused you to make such a huge leap forward?
So level 4 wasn’t the best of years for me, I moved clubs after making the decision to follow my coach Jody Kime and then after only a few weeks of moving to Birmingham, I dislocated my elbow and spent almost a year on and off my arm.
From Level 3 onwards, you did exceptionally well at age groups, winning all available titles. For young gymnasts working hard to improve, it might from the outside seem to as though everything came relatively easily to you. As with all elite gymnasts, I’m sure this hasn’t been the case. What parts of gymnastics have you found difficult?
Compulsories definitely didn’t come easy to me, I really struggle with flexibility so r+c was the hardest piece for me.
On comp days I would stretch every hour from the minute I woke up and before and after every piece till I had competed range. It was always my lowest scoring piece. But it also helped me with my other pieces, so I knew I needed to stretch more than others.
Can you talk a little bit about your club City of Birmingham. There seems to be a hugely positive and encouraging atmosphere there, and so many promising gymnasts coming through. What do you love about your club, how does the set up and training environment help you keep pushing forward with the intensity of elite gymnastics?
I love my club because we all work together as a team and encourage each other to reach our goals. Not just the gymnast the coaches as well. Lee Woolls who is the head of men’s artistic has really helped me with my kaz vault so it’s everyone’s input that makes our club so successful.
You have been with your coach Jody Kime for a long time now, and gymnasts can only be really successful long term with the right coach for them. Reaching senior elite level is a huge achievement for both gymnast and coach, with everything it takes to get there, what would you say makes your gymnast/coach relationship work so well?
Jody has coached me for over 10 years now so she knows me better than anyone.
She knows from the second I walk through the door how my session is going to go just by the look on my face. She gets the best out of me through positive encouragement helping me push forward with my skills, but most importantly she believes in me and will do anything to help me achieve my goals. Like most we have our ups & downs and sometimes we don’t like each other but, we never take it to the next session, Everyday is a fresh start and that works good for us.
How many hours a week do you train, over how many days? Do you do multiple session per day, and what advice would you give to young gymnasts about balancing school work with training?
We train for twenty four hours per week over five days. We do two double sessions and three single sessions. We have Thursday’s and Sunday’s off and these days I usually use to catch up on homework or any work I’ve missed on the days I leave school early.
You have at times trained with the senior British squad this year as you prepare for the senior ranks, what has that experience been like for you?
I remember my first training session with the seniors and I watched a lot instead of
Training! Working with gymnasts like Becky and Ellie Downie, Gabby Jupp, Frags and Amy Tinker was pretty special however
I trained a lot with the senior squad last year while getting ready for junior Europeans so I knew what to expect which is why I wasn’t as nervous.
Last year you began to be called up for international competition, and did very well. Let’s talk a little about your international experiences:
You were thrown in at the deep end with your first international, travelling out to Canada for International Gymnix, and without Jody with you. How did you deal with this experience? Were you able to go out there in the same way you always had, or did it feel very different?
I only found out a few days before as I was a replacement and my first reaction was to get upset! It was my first international, and without my coach, and with none of the girls my age, but it actually turned out really well. I just got on with it and did the best I could do on the day and I loved the experience
After some great performances, you were named to the Junior European team as the only first year junior, what was the Championships like for you? How did it feel to become a European medalist?
I have mixed feelings when I think back to junior Europeans, it wasn’t my best comp and things definitely could of gone better. Although, some of my scores did count towards the team total, so I helped to achieve the silver medal so I was proud of that and it was one of the best feelings being on that podium.
You were definitely a candidate for a place in the vault final, and vaulted beautifully in qualifications, but received a zero score on a technicality. Can you explain what happened?
I went on the judges command when the screen was still on stop. it’s something I definitely learnt from and I definitely won’t be making that mistake again.
This year you have came into domestic competition as the favourite, and really with the expectation you’d win both English and British AA titles, which you did. Do you feel any extra pressure in that position, do you put any more upon yourself, or are you able to detach from it, and just try to compete to your best?
I did feel pressure going into the British but I didn’t let it get to me , I knew I had put in the work and my routines had been going well , so I felt confident I would do my best no matter what the outcome was.
You have also come out with a lot of upgrades this year, to beam and floor in particular, (Teaja added a rotation to her wolf turn making it a double, a roundoff straight back, and a triple twist dismount on beam, on floor she put her triple twist into a combination tumble going from a one and a half twist, and added a double twisting straight front). Which of these were the hardest to get competition ready, which are you the most confident on?
The hardest was probably the round off straight back, because it’s hard to keep it in line.
I’m most confident on the one and half to triple and I really enjoy competing this skill.
Lets talk about EYOF, a mixed experience for you as you certainly went in as one of the favourites. You had a difficult time in qualifications, but were called in at the very last minute to the AA. How rushed were you? How did you settle yourself, and were you pleased with your AA competition?
So yes I was really upset with how qualification went and I was gutted not to of made the AA and floor final, but I was pleased that my teammates had both gone clean and made finals.
So on the day of AA finals I was at the side watching zoe and Amelie do warm up, when zoe fell from bars and hurt her shoulder. I could see the physio with her and then minutes later Jody came over and said you’re competing. I didn’t even get time to think about anything and I had little kit as it was back at the village. While one of the coaches went to get my competition kit I had to do what was left of the warm up in shorts & vest top. However I thought the comp went really well, apart from a little mistake on bars but I was grateful I got to do it and was pleased with 5th place AA.
What lessons if any did you able to take from the Games?
There is always lessons learnt from competitions however I felt there wasn’t anything more I could of done, nerves played a part but it just wasn’t to be and sometimes you can try too hard.
As you head toward the senior ranks in just a few months, you seem to be a gymnast with a lot of possible new skills in the works. Do you have any plans to upgrade further on beam and floor, what would you like to add to your routines? what about vault and bars.
I’ve added a few new things to beam since eyof’s one being the triple wolf spin so we will see how that goes. I’m really working hard on vault at the moment , so hopefully I will upgrade that soon.
I will probably spend the next few months working on bars , so hopefully I can improve on that piece but at the moment, I’m not sure what new skills I want to learn.
If you could learn and successfully compete any skill at all on any apparatus, what would it be?
It would have to be an Amanar on vault
Are you scheduled to compete again this year, and if so which events?
I’m hoping to compete again this year as a junior , but I don’t have anything scheduled at the moment.
Looking forward to your senior debut in 2018, what are your hopes for the year? Are you aiming for Commonwealth Games selection?
I want to enjoy next year, as being a first year senior I feel I won’t have any pressure on me so, not much will be expected. I am really pleased that I have made it to the senior ranks and hope to compete well in front of some of my idols, Just to take part in the Commonwealth trials would be amazing so we will see.
Finally can what you love about gymnastics, what does it means to you?
For me gymnastics is my life ! I eat, breath sleep, gymnastics. When I’m not doing gymnastics I’m watching it on something! I love learning new skills and I love competing and meeting new people. Gymnastics is all I’ve known for the last ten years.
Taeja kindly agreed to answering a few questions from fans. I offered my instagram followers the chance to submit questions, and there was a huge response of over 200 which of course would be far too many for Taeja to answer! To make things fair, I wrote out all of the questions, put them in a bowl, and got my six year old niece to draw three at random.
Tiff asks : What is the worst injury you have got, and what inspired you to keep going?
My worst injury was when I was eight and I did a flick on beam and fell off and landed on a stretched arm and dislocated my elbow. My coach and my family inspired me to keep going and helped me through the tough times.
Victoria asks: How can I get over a mental block for my backwards walkover on beam?
I think it’s best my coach answers this question as she would be the one to help me with a metal block. Jody ?
Hi Victoria, so with mental blocks you need to first be positive in your training if you think you can’t do it you probably won’t, also to break down the skill as much as possible so you don’t think about it as a whole, then piece by piece you will grow in confidence and in time should be able to complete the skill again in a safe environment:)
Tiggy asks: Do you have anything you always do before a competition?
Hi Tiggy , before compete I like to stretch out and chill out with my team
Mates and then before I compete I go through the routines in my head.
Once again, a big thank you to Taeja, and thank you to coach Jody too. Huge good luck to Taeja for the final part of her junior career, and we all look forward to seeing her join the senior ranks as of January.