One of the most difficult dynamics in high level sports for an elite athlete is competing alongside a sibling. It is a unique experience to be able to enjoy all the perks of a successful career, while having a close family member alongside you at every step of the way. Someone who can be there to support you even in circumstances where family members aren’t typically allowed. Someone who can relate to your personal experiences because she has gone through everything you have gone through as well.
But it all comes at a cost, the dreaded sibling rivalry.
For the “winner” of such a rivalry, there is no joy in beating your sibling. Entering a competition with a sibling by your side means being emotionally invested in not just your own performance, but her performance as well. Often resulting in double the emotional roller coaster ride that is participating in a high stakes event. Occasionally there are times where despite winning medals, a gymnast walks away from the competition unhappy because her sister had a difficult time.
And then there is the sibling on the losing end of this scenario. The one who has to personally watch her sibling experience success without letting jealousy get the best of her. It is hard for any gymnast to act gracious in the face of defeat. But for a gymnast who finds herself on the losing end of a sibling rivalry, it means people will ask why you aren’t performing as well as someone who was given the same upbringing, coaching, and athletic genes. It means the reminder of not being good enough literally follows you home.
For Jessica Gadirova and Jennifer Gadirova, the duo for Great Britain are more than just sisters. At 16 years old they are identical twins. The pair are still extremely young for the sport, but already a pattern has emerged. In competitions where both Gadirova twins were in attendance, it was Jennifer who produced the better result a majority of the time.
The most notable instance came at the 2019 Junior World Championships where Jennifer qualified to the All-Around and put up a 7th place finish. Jennifer also qualified on three of four events in Event Finals and walked away with a silver medal on vault. Meanwhile Jessica failed to qualify on any apparatus in Event Finals, nor did she qualify to the All-Around Final. At the beginning of their senior career right before COVID-19 put the gymnastics schedule on pause, Jennifer Gadirova had been sent overseas to compete overseas at the American Cup, but not Jessica.
Perhaps the most obvious example of the disparity between Jessica and Jennifer Gadirova can be found in their Wikipedia pages. Jennifer has had her own page for nearly two years, Jessica’s page was created only two weeks ago. Gymnastics fans have come to notice this trend. On Twitter Jessica Gadirova had been openly labeled the “weaker” of the Gadirova twins and if she were to Google her own name, the above picture would have been one of the top results.
But that all changed when shortly before the 2021 European Championships it was announced Jennifer Gadirova would not be in attendance. This gave Jessica an opportunity to compete without sharing a spotlight with her sister. To have a major competition where it would be all about Jessica, not Jennifer who would be the main focus.
For Jessica, things got off to a rocky start with a fall on the balance beam which was the scariest moment of the competition. It was the type of fall no gymnastics fan wants to see as Jessica could have easily injured both her leg and her back, while also coming dangerously close to whacking her head on the beam as well. Jessica may have brushed her head on the side of the beam, but the camera angle makes it difficult to tell.
None of this left Jessica unfazed as she spent hardly a second with her body fully on the ground, took only a ten second rest on her knees as she collected herself, and was back on the beam less than 25 seconds after her fall. If anything, Jessica Gadirova probably could have jumped back on the beam less than ten seconds after her fall.
But Jessica specifically opted to allow herself extra time on the floor which was a move more in line with a veteran who has competed at the senior for a full Olympic cycle. Young 16 year olds in their first major competition typically do the opposite. They panic in the moment and try to get back on the beam as quickly as possible. Often leading to an additional fall later in the routine because they haven’t given themselves enough time to mentally recover from the previous fall.
The act of gymnasts responding to a fall by immediately remounting the beam while taking no time to collect themselves first is such a common trend in gymnastics, it is the standard response to a fall on beam. Even though it isn’t in their best interests, even established veterans opt to do this way because the sport teaches gymnasts to avoid conducting themselves in ways where their behavior can be perceived as a sign of weakness.
To see Jessica Gadirova willingly take so much extra time and even pace around demonstrates that this is a gymnast who has a lot of self confidence, doesn’t fret over how she will be perceived, and one who won’t let the sport dictate how she behaves, she will decide that for herself.
In that 30 seconds of footage Jessica Gadirova had endeared herself to gymnastics fans. Jessica wasn’t the first to record a nasty fall on an apparatus and shrug it off as if it were nothing.
But the way she conducted herself perfectly embodied what being a gymnast is all about. The physical toughness to not let whatever pain she was feeling affect her, the mental toughness of not being unfazed with the events that had just transpired, and the determination to power ahead. In that moment Jessica Gadirova demonstrated the classic traits that are frequently associated with gymnasts who go on to win medals, and win medals she did.
Jessica Gadirova qualified into the All-Around in 8th place, but when finals came she recorded the 3rd highest score and won a bronze medal. But Jessica wasn’t done yet. Next she won a silver medal on vault and later, a gold medal on floor. Not only did Jessica win a trio of medals, but she did so in a way that was likable and lovable.
If the way Jessica conducted herself in front of the camera wasn’t adorable enough, there is also her ending on floor which is one of the better choreographically endings the sport has seen in recent years.
The Gadirova twins aren’t just popular with the gymnastics die hards, their story is being covered in the non-gymnastics media of Great Britain, and even internationally as well. Most notably in Azerbaijan. The Gadirova twins have dual Irish and British citizenship, but descend from an Azerbaijani family who moved to England just three years before they were born. According to Luba over at Gymnovosti who researched citizenship law, the Gadirova twins qualified for Irish citizenship under a law that was set to expire three months after they were born. While the Gadirova twins don’t have Azerbaijani citizenship, they are eligible for it as well.
It goes without saying that whenever a gymnastics competition is held, medals will be won. But these medals were different. Jessica Gadirova achieving breakout success at the European Championships is one of the biggest storylines so far of the year. Whereas the success of Viktoria Listunova at this very same competition has only served to reaffirm what we already know about Russia’s prospects for Tokyo-2021, the success of Jessica Gadirova has completely changed Great Britain’s outlooked for the upcoming Olympics.
Historically, women’s gymnastics has been dominated by a small number of nations with everyone else being locked out of the medals whenever a team competition is held. That has changed in recent years when Great Britain won a bronze medal at the 2015 World Championships and Italy did the same at the 2019 World Championships.
Both nations had broken the traditional dominance the United States, China, and Eastern Europe held on the sport. But both nations would now rival each other if they wanted to win a medal in Tokyo. Italy and Great Britain are two of the leading candidates for a country to play “spoiler” in the team competition. Before the arrival of Jessica Gadirova, it appeared Italy had the upper hand.
When a gymnast achieves unexpected breakout success, the ramifications usually extend no further than her own medal prospects. Another breakout star in the American, Chinese, or Russian program would be nice, but it wouldn’t dramatically change the medal prospects for countries that are already considered favorites to win a medal.
As the 6th ranked program in the world, Great Britain was one of the few programs where adding one additional high profile gymnast to the fold would truly complete the program. Before Jessica Gadirova it could be argued that Great Britain was a program strong enough to field a Tokyo-2021 team that was absent of any weak links, but only under circumstances where there were no major injuries and everything went right.
After the emergence of Jessica Gadirova, Great Britain is no longer in a position where it is trying to avoid having a weak gymnast in its lineup. It is now a question of whether the country can upgrade its strong lineup with one or two gymnasts who are even stronger. Since 2019 Great Britain has participated in two European Championships and one World Championships.
Five different British gymnasts have won medals at those three competitions. Meaning the British program is now so loaded in talent, with only four spots available someone who recently won a medal is going to be left off the team. Two if additional room has to be made for Jennifer Gadirova. Which brings me to my next point.
If the gymnastics community is freaking out over Gadirova’s breakout success at the European Championships, it is because there are two of them. Conventional wisdom dictates that if Jessica can have success, than surely Jennifer will as well.
Had the roles been reversed where it was Jennifer who had dominated the 2021 European Championships, fans wouldn’t be quick to see this result as proving both Gadirova twins have bright futures. But because it was the supposedly less proven and less capable Jessica Gadirova who had success, fans have been quick to view her result as validating the potential of Jennifer Gadirova.
Some fans are looking at the 2021 European Championships and asking themselves “have we been betting on the wrong Gadirova twin all along?” Others are looking at the same result and thinking if this is what Jessica is capable of, just imagine what Jennifer is capable of if she was the one with stronger results as a junior?
That is the fan observations that come with a sibling rivalry. Even if the two sisters in question never treat each other as rivals, but allies who support each other as best they can. Any emotions of envy and jealously are cast aside in the name of wishing a family member the very best. On Twitter you can watch Jennifer’s reaction to Jessica’s victory. It is as wholesome as it gets.
Jessica also commented on how supportive her sister has been:
“It’s just crazy to have a medal around my neck – so so crazy. Jennifer has been messaging me all week saying how exited she is for me and telling me to go out and smash it and enjoy the moment and that’s what I did.”
After two years of things being all about Jennifer, right now it is Jessica who technically has the superior competitive resume. Jennifer has her work cut out for her if she wants to overtake her twin sister. Jessica set the bar so high that most gymnasts can only dream of winning three medals in a single competition. And if Jennifer ever overtakes Jessica again, at the very least Jessica has the bragging rights of saying “I did it first.”
The breakout success of Jessica Gadirova did more to change Great Britain’s prospects for the future than simply 2021. Because the Gadirova twins or so young, they have strong prospects for Paris-2024 with even Los Angeles-2028 being a realistic goal. It is easy to get excited for them because this duo is so young and has many bright years ahead of them.
It remains to be seen what the future has in store for Jessica and Jennifer. But in April of 2021, after two years of being marginalized Jessica finally had a chance to shine all by herself. After being granted an opportunity, Jessica took it for everything it was worth. Bringing the two sisters on equal footing and ensuring both now have accomplishments worth celebrating.