On the 10-year anniversary of the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games, Naazmi Johnston reflects on becoming Australia’s second rhythmic gymnastics gold medallist at the Games and achieving her goals in Delhi.
It was a gold rush at the Indira Gandhi Arena for our Australian gymnasts at the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games, days after the artistic gymnasts dominated the mats winning 16 medals including nine golds, it was time for our rhythmic gymnasts to pick up the apparatuses and begin their competition.
It had been for a long wait for the trio with competition getting underway on the ninth day of the Games, but for Johnston the wait was just another step on her long road to Delhi.
Rhythmic gymnastics had become a family tradition for Johnston, with older sister Shaneez Johnston representing Australia at the Kuala Lumpur 1998 Commonwealth Games, finishing the Games with four medals, two silvers and two bronze.
While the older Johnston sister was training for the Games in Malaysia, the younger Johnston sister was being noticed while practicing on the mats quickly rising through the elite junior ranks, before Naazmi made her debut at the Melbourne 2006 Games as a 17-year-old.
Naazmi Johnston during her gold medal winning routine at the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games. (CGA Archives)
“The Melbourne Games were amazing, being in front of a home crowd and everyone being there, being able to cheer you on,” Naazmi said.
“It was an amazing environment to be competing in and one of my first major competitions too.”
The then teenager joined teammates Amanda Lee and Kimberly Mason to win bronze in the team all-around event. A significant moment in the young gymnasts’ career, and a reward for a momentous decision she made years earlier.
Johnston had decided to move to Queensland at just 16-years-old to continue her elite gymnastics training, leaving friends and family behind in Sydney.
It was a brave decision which resulted in the bronze medal and filled her with confidence in the years following as she headed towards her first Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.
“There is no event like the Olympics… representing your country,” Johnston said.
“You learn how to manage expectations and performing under pressure… getting out there and making sure you are able to perform to the standard you have set for yourself.”
However, the Games in China also revealed Johnston was beginning to feel a sense of “burn out” with the sport.
Naazmi Johnston during the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games. (CGA Archives)
“I had been with the same coach since the start of my career and I followed them to Queensland to continue training with them which was the best move at the time, it got me to the Olympics,” Johnston said.
“But after being away for two years, just focussing on gymnastics so much, by the time the Olympics had ended I was like, ‘uhhh… I just want to move back home and be around that family support network’.
“So it was a big decision to move back home, but it gave me that little push to get me out of my comfort zone by training with a new coach and a new environment, just changing up my style a bit which definitely had a big impact on my success in Delhi.”
Johnston began training with former Commonwealth Games bronze medallist and teammate of older sister Shaneez at the Kuala Lumpur Games in Danielle Le Ray.
The change rekindled a new desire in the sport for Johnston and enabled her to set new goals for the years ahead.
“I think during my whole career I had not set a gold, but Delhi was the first time I had kind of said my aim is to come first overall,” Johnston said.
“It was funny because I did put that extra pressure on myself.”
Following the 2010 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships in Moscow, Russia in September, one month before Delhi, Johnston was heading into the Games as one of the top gymnasts in the Commonwealth. But before she arrived in India, Johnston was preparing for a new set of experiences and challenges the Games would offer.
“I had never been to India before, so it was going to be a new experience,” Johnston said.
“Being in the gymnastics’ team, you were hearing all the rumours from the other team members about the state of the village… but we found it fun sleeping in our beds with the fly nets over the top, it made you feel like you were camping.
“But it was a bit of a different experience with the bug issue in India, spraying yourself every day, we all smelt like insect repellent (laughing).”
Naazmi Johnston reacts to the scores at the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games. (CGA Archives)
Despite the challenges of the bugs and a curious grasshopper which made its way past the repellent and on to the mat during one of her final routines, Johnston had a laser focus on achieving her goal of winning, a focus which went against her normal approach to the competition, a change even her coach was curious about.
“I had put that extra pressure on myself, and it was funny because during the all-around competition, I was acting all seriously and not smiling and my coach goes, ‘what are you doing?’,” Johnston said with a laugh.
“My coach was saying, ‘this is not how you are… smile… chat to people’, but in Delhi I thought I needed this mantra of ‘I need to focus and be serious’, but it was her pulling me out of that serious headspace which I think was an important change.”
The coach’s suggestion to going back to being her normal self worked for Johnston just in time.
The all-around event was the one Johnston had targeted for gold, and the major challenge would come from Cypriot competitor Chrystalleni Trikomiti. The all-around event features competition in four apparatuses – hoop, ribbon, rope, and ball.
After trailing early in the competition, the event would come down to the final apparatus, the ball, the apparatus Johnston would describe as her “worst apparatus” but with a gold medal between her and a solid routine, she decided to go for it.
“I started out trailing… I was the last competitor so every time I could see where I was in the competition, I could see where I was ranked, which was quite stressful for me, normally I don’t like seeing my scores,” Johnston said.
“I then slowly raised up and going into that last apparatus, I knew you if I can just hold on to the ball, then I would win, and if you watch that routine back I am holding on to the ball for dear life.”
Johnston held on, and in the process became only the second Australian athlete to win gold in rhythmic gymnastics at the Commonwealth Games, joining Kasumi Takahashi who won five golds at the 1994 Games in Victoria.
Naazmi Johnston with coach Danielle Le Ray at the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games. (CGA Archives)
In her next event, Johnston joined Price and Murray to claim the gold medal in the team all-around, leaving the final individual apparatus events on the final day of competition, for another encounter with the dreaded ball and a complex routine she planned to perform.
“I actually saw a sports psychologist specifically for the ball apparatus and that routine, because I would do this perfect routine and just throw the ball off of the mat at the very end,” Johnston said.
“In rhythmic gymnastics you hand in sheets to the judges, so they know what the routine is and what moves to expect and how your routine should be, so definitely the aim is to go for everything and for the finals, definitely my mindset was you just have to go for it.
“But I guess sometimes you focus on it even more and work even harder at it, so maybe it was the result.”
The result was a gold medal in the ball routine. Johnston would add silver medals in the ribbon and rope events, bringing her Games total to five medals and achieving the goals she had set herself years before.
“I said after the Olympics I would do two more years and go to the Games in Delhi and that would be it and then retire after that, so to get to the end of Delhi and achieve that goal was a huge relief and was a great feeling,” Johnston said.
“The success makes you feel like all the hard work and all the sacrifices you have made have really been for something.”
Her achievements at the Games took a while to sink in for the now six-time Commonwealth Games medallist.
“I don’t think it really hit me until they asked me to walk with the flagbearer (Alicia Coutts) at the closing ceremony, I don’t think I realised how big of an achievement my medals were until I sat back and was like, ‘ahh… that was quite special’,” Johnston said.
A decade on, Naazmi Johnston, now married and mother to baby Rocco, is still involved with sport working for Special Olympics Australia.
Helping other participate in sport, something Johnston is passionate about.
“Definitely sport is so vital and so valuable in my own life and getting people into sport is a passion of mine,” Johnston said.