On the verge of becoming New Zealand’s first female trampolinist at an Olympic Games, Maddie Davidson has first had to conquer her greatest fear
For almost five years, Maddie Davidson could not beat her nemesis, the Triffus.
The Triff, as the talented young trampolinist calls it, hung over her day in, day out. It messed with her head, as both her body and her brain fought to conquer it.
So what is this relentless monster?
Well, the Triffus is a difficult move in trampolining – a triple somersault with a half twist in the air. Davidson wanted to master a Triffus pike to begin the routine she’d perform on trampoline’s world stage.
“The Triff is a skill I’ve had a lot of problems with; I’ve been trying to learn it for four or five years. My brain didn’t like it, it just wouldn’t co-operate,” Davidson explains.
“That’s the hard thing about trampolining. Before you do [a skill], you’re so sure that you’ve got it, then when you do it wrong, it’s hard to understand why your brain isn’t responding the way it should.”
But her coach, former Uzbekistan trampolinist Alex Nilov, wouldn’t give up on her and the Triff.
“Alex is very good at thinking outside the box. He’s always looking at different ways of learning things, because everyone is different,” Davidson says.
At times, it was painful. “Once you get into those bigger flips, you fall a little bit harder,” she says. “So, he was a bit reluctant to push me to learn it in the normal ways.”
But then this January came “the light bulb moment”.
“We found a new technique that worked really well for my brain. Finally, I understood how to do it. We tried it into the foam pit one day and it actually worked,” she says.
So Davidson, in her typically determined way, spent three weeks tumbling into the foam pit at her Olympia Gymnastics Sports club in Christchurch, testing the Triff over and over, before she took it to the tramp.
“I was so excited, I really thought I’d never do it,” the 20-year-old says.
Davidson then added the Triffus pike to the individual trampoline routine she’d take to this year’s World Cup events dotted around the globe, and the world championships in Tokyo, which start this week.
It meant that her routine improved “tremendously” – lifting the difficulty in her routine by 1.5 points, and in her second routine by 2.5 points. (Trampolinists are scored on difficulty, execution, horizontal displacement and time of flight. The difficulty score starts at 0.0 and increases with every difficult skill).
“It’s a massive difference, and it’s helped me to be more competitive for a spot at the Olympics,” Davidson says.
And that’s what Davidson is aiming for.
At this week’s world championships in Tokyo, Davidson is aiming for the finals of the women’s trampoline, and to secure New Zealand a quota spot at the 2020 Olympics.
She also knows she has to lift her world ranking to No.16 or higher to assuage New Zealand’s Olympic selectors. Right now, she’s 20th on the rankings ladder, but she’s proven she can spring much higher.
At last year’s world champs she finished 13th. In September, at the World Cup event in Khabarovsk, Russia, she was 10th, scoring a personal best (watch the video below).
“The World Cups at the start of the year weren’t as good as I wanted,” she admits. “So for three months, I put in the really hard yards and changed other things in my life – what I was doing in the gym; my diet, to make sure I was getting leaner and stronger, and helping my body recover better.”
If she can bounce her way back to Tokyo next year, she will be New Zealand’s first female trampolinist to compete at an Olympics.
Tony Compier, the CEO of Gymnastics NZ, says it would be a “truly historic moment” in New Zealand women’s sport.
“As the old adage goes, it’s one thing to have talent, and another to be able to convert that into success. Maddie has been building many milestones of success over the last few years, so what a deserved reward it would be – and a trailblazing achievement – if Maddie could convert those milestones into Olympic representation at Tokyo 2020,” he says.
“We’re already proud of what Maddie has achieved. But for a generation of young Kiwi girls just waiting to be inspired by New Zealand’s first female trampoline Olympian, then that would be absolutely amazing.”
Dylan Schmidt set the bar high for Kiwi athletes in 2016, when he became our first trampoline Olympian, finishing an admirable seventh in the men’s individual competition. Also competing in Japan this week, he’s been a mine of information for Davidson in her campaign.
“I take anything he says on board. He gave me great advice on how to ‘kill bounce’ to end my routine, which I haven’t been so good at. That’s made a difference too,” she says.
Davidson isn’t a novice on the world stage. This will be her sixth world championships – competing at world age-group levels since she was 15.
Two years ago, she won silver in the individual, and bronze in the synchronised pair (with Kate Nicholson) in the world 17-21 year age division.
Davidson still competes in synchro – in fact, she’s now ranked fourth in the world with partner Alexa Kennedy. Unfortunately for them, synchronised trampoline isn’t an Olympic event.
What’s most impressive about this pairing is that they live on two different islands – Davidson in Christchurch and Kennedy in Auckland. They often only get together at a World Cup, which obviously makes training difficult.
“You just have to learn to adjust really quickly,” Davidson says. “We’ve learned each other’s habits really well, so that when we get together, we instantly know what each other does.”
The pair won’t be competing at these world championships, after Kennedy was injured at the last World Cup in Spain. She’s also been pressing for the individual Olympic spot.
“It’s such a shame she isn’t here,” Davidson says on the phone from Japan. “We are really good friends now. She definitely needs to make sure she’s healthy and happy, rather than push for another competition.”
Davidson has been relatively injury-free so far in her career. Though her parents must have worried when she first hopped on a tramp aged seven.
“We had family friends who did the sport, and they tried to teach me how to do it. But I had a lot less control,” Davidson admits. “So Mum and Dad figured they should put me in a club rather than letting me do it not so well myself.
“At that point I was trying to do a lot of different things – ballet, basketball and soccer as well. Then I watched one of the older trampoline kids come down from Auckland and I remember thinking how amazing they were. So I finished the other sports and focused on trampolining.
“I wasn’t great at it, but I just loved being on a trampoline.”
The Davidsons have videos of their daughter around the age of nine, declaring she wanted to go to the Olympics.
“But I didn’t really think it was ever going to happen. I hadn’t done anything extraordinary until I was 18 and got to world age groups. Then I thought ‘maybe it’s possible, maybe I could do this’. And that kick-started the serious training,” she says.
Nilov, who has a Master’s degree in trampoline sports science, has been Davidson’s coach for the past seven years. He’s with her in Japan.
“For a while, our club had a problem keeping coaches, they were changing every two or three months. As an athlete, it was a really unstable environment,” she says. “I wouldn’t be where I am now if we hadn’t found Alex.”
Davidson is now passing on her international knowledge to the next generation of athletes in Christchurch. When she’s not training, or studying, she works at a gymnastics centre running the trampoline programme.
She’s three years into her bachelor of commerce degree, which she’s doing part time, and eventually wants to work in social marketing, influencing change in the community.
Davidson ends her routine with a full-in half-out pike, followed immediately by a half-in Rudy-out pike. She deciphers that as “a lot of twisting”.
But she’s quite happy to turn herself inside out for a shot at the Olympics.