She’s the pint sized protégé from Ballymoney who is on an exciting journey as she aims for selection for the Irish gymnastics squad for Tokyo 2020.
Lola Nicholl is just nine-years old but she already is showing the commitment and dedication far beyond her years as she travels over 800 miles a week with her Mum Siobhàn Donaghy to attend training at the Salto Club in Lisburn.
Hoping to emulate her idol, four times Commonwealth Games champion and Strictly Come Dancing contestant, Claudia Fragapane, Lola trains six days a week, forgoing the normal life of a nine year old.
“Lola has been doing properly gymnastics since she was six years old,” Mum Siobhàn said.
“On her first night at the Sika Club in Coleraine the coach pulled me over and said ‘You don’t see a talent this very often’. Lola just blew them away.
“At the Sika Club in Coleraine she was training 12 hours a week and that gradually went up to 16 hours a week.
“Unfortunately at Sika she got to a point when they just couldn’t handle her anymore and there is a term in gymnastics called ‘letting go’ so Mary, the coach had to let her go and she moved to Salto in Lisburn two years ago.
“She was put into the Development A group straight away and within a week she was invited to join the Elite A squad where she was training with girls who were a lot older.
“Her training upped to five days a week and over this summer it has gone up to six days a week and credit to her she hardly missed a day.
“Because Lola goes to training every day it makes it impossible for me to get a full time job so the cost of the travel does put a strain on finances.
“It’s also tough because we cover 800 miles a week with around 24 hours a week spent in the car alone. However, they have very high hopes for her so I will do anything to help her achieve her dreams.
“Lola will get up at 7am to do her homework from the night before. She will then go to school, leave there at 3pm and be in Lisburn for 4.30pm.
“She will eat her dinner in the car and then train until 8/8.30pm and we will finally get home at 10pm.
“She has more commitment and dedication than most adults and she just gets on with it. The other gymnasts at the club can get home after school, get their homework done and have their dinner before they go to training. Unfortunately there is no closer facility so we have no option other than to travel up and down each day.”
The next few months will see the ante increased for Lola with an All Ireland competition and selection for the Olympic Starter squad looming.
“Lola has the All Ireland Artistic Gymnastics finals on October 16th in Limerick which means a lot more travelling and expense,” said Siobhàn.
“However, we have been so lucky because her Dad’s family in Ballymoney have been doing a lot of fundraising to help with the cost.
“Stephen Cairns Hairdressing has been brilliant and has got the band rolling with his sponsorship and we are extremely grateful. Some other people have also offered to help and it makes all the difference to seeing Lola achieve her goals and it also takes some of the pressure off us.
“Her Dad Leslie, pays her fees and I look after the travelling but he almost lost his arm in a work accident three months ago, so we have been struggling to pay fees on top of everything else.
“We are really grateful because some local businessmen have stepped in to help out which is fantastic and makes all the difference.
“After the All Ireland Finals Lola is going for trials for the Olympic starter squad in Galway City at the start of December. This squad is for the development of the Irish team to bring them on for Tokyo 2020.”
Despite her young years Lola is a very focused individual, mature beyond her years.
“I think Lola’s commitment comes from her training and the nature of the sport,” added Siobhàn.
“She has been through a lot to get where she is - no playtime, no birthday parties, none of the normal things her friends are doing because you are only allowed to miss a day at gym if you are sick.
“Every weekend she sleeps above the gym. Once she gets there on a Friday for training she stays there that night, gets up on Saturday morning and trains from 12 until 3.30pm and then again on Sunday from 9 to 12.30.
“We’ll get home on a Sunday afternoon and then it’s back on the grind again because it all starts again on Monday and she has been doing that for the past two years which is tough.”
Lola also has to fit in strength training as well as her training at Salto, however, the hours spent en route from the north coast to Lisburn are taking their toll on this talented little girl.
“There is a saying ‘hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard’. Now Lola loves to be able to do all the big skills and she is flicking out skills beyond her years. Unfortunately when it comes to strength and conditioning she isn’t so enamoured but I think that is because she is so tired from all the travelling and not because she doesn’t want to do it.”
Two years on the road took its toll on Lola just before the start of the summer.
“I have always said Lola can stop anytime she wants and she has only ever had one wobble and that was at the start of the summer,” explained her dedicated Mum.
“She said she wanted to quit so I let her. After three weeks she came to me crying and said ‘Mum I feel like a jigsaw puzzle with a big piece missing’ and I said ‘Darling that’s gymnastics’
“We were straight up the road back to training the next day and she said ‘I can’t wait to feel the beam beneath my feet again’. To be honest I think she has come back stronger.
“It’s getting to the stage we are thinking that we need to relocate to Lisburn because of the strain of the travelling.
“If she is selected for the Olympic Starter squad we will be travelling down south three or four times a year on top of her normal training.
“I just want Lola to be able to achieve her dreams but it is so costly. The family are doing everything they can to raise some money to help with expense.”
As her All Ireland finals draw close Lola remains focused on her goals.
“I really love gymnastics especially the Beam. It’s my favourite because it is so elegant and I like the dancey parts, I’m also good at it.
I’m really looking forward to competing in the All Ireland finals but I’m not looking forward to the travelling. I don’t enjoy the travelling. I either sleep in the car or try and do some homework but I know I have to do that so I can continue to improve.
“I really want to go to the Olympics and also the Commonwealth Games. I love gymnastics and want to be the very best I can.”
If anyone wants to help Lola on her way to Tokyo they can contact Salto Gymnastics Club in Lisburn or contact her Mum Siobhàn by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org