Ruby Harrold: Becoming an international gymnast without mum

By Ollie WilliamsBBC Olympic sports reporter
Ruby's road to World Gymnastics

"After the Europeans I thought, how proud of me would she have been? What would she have said?"

Ruby Harrold has not seen her mother for almost a decade.

Jane, then mum to seven-year-old Ruby and younger sisters Caitlin and Melissa, died of cancer in December 2003.

She never got to see Ruby become the 17-year-old she is today, an international gymnast preparing to make her World Championships debut in Antwerp this week.

A reserve for London 2012, she was eighth in the all-around at the European Championships having also reached the beam and bars finals.

Her father - Terry Harrold, a software engineer - has raised Ruby and her two sisters alone for the past 10 years and still finds his wife's death hard to discuss.

"I can't put it into words. It felt like the world had ended," he says of the day Jane was diagnosed.

"She was told she had an 80% chance of dying. When she finally succumbed to it, it was a big blank, really. It's a time I have put in a box, and put away. I don't really want to go there. I put my feelings away, and I'm leaving them there."

Life for Ruby carried on through the trauma around her. Other parents at the gym, and Ruby's granddad, would help to ferry her the 30 miles to and from their Langford home to the gymnastics club in Portishead.

Jane Harrold with daughter Ruby
Ruby Harrold with mum Jane, just before she went to hospital, in August 2003

"She had been doing gymnastics for about a year before Jane found out she had cancer. As Jane was going in and out of hospital, the gym just carried on.

"When Jane died, Ruby had her down times but children have their moments when it affects them, then they put it away and get on with their life.

"I think she probably found doing her gym kept her mind off the situation, because she was busy. She was the oldest. She had the closest relationship with her mum."

And yet now, looking back, Ruby believes she was young enough that the impact of her mother's death was less severe.

"It was hugely saddening," she says. "But I was seven and I kind of think, well, I hadn't built a huge relationship. Because she'd been in and out of hospital for a year, I'd learned to deal with it.

"I don't have many memories of her, to be honest. I look back at pictures and videos, but it's difficult to picture in my head what she was like - what her voice was like, what she looks like. But that's why you've got pictures and films, to remind you of these things.

"My younger sister Melissa was only three, and I do feel sorry for her - she never really knew her mum and that's got to be difficult. But we all grew up not knowing any different."

Terry, originally from Liverpool before settling in Somerset, acknowledges he keeps his emotions "bottled up" and believes his eldest daughter takes after him.

"Every now and again her emotions come to the surface and she will let it all out," he says. "She has this shell, and the shell can sometimes crack, but mostly she's very, very solid.

"Ruby sorts her own packing out for competitions, she tends to be very organised and in control of what she's doing. She takes responsibility for her preparation. I just have to get her there.

"She knows what she's doing, knows what she wants, and doesn't listen to me much. She wants one-word answers, I'm liable to give her a book."

Melissa, 13, does athletics once a week but also enjoys drama. Caitlin, 15, is a county-level triple jumper. But Ruby, her father admits, has had to come first.

"They do feel that Ruby has stopped them doing things. They've had the odd complaint, but they accept the fact I don't really have a say in what Ruby's doing.

"She is committed, the sport requires her to be committed, therefore what she needs and where she goes takes priority. For quite a few years, whatever they did had to fit around what Ruby did."

The two younger sisters have been given authorised absence from school to travel to Belgium with their dad. They will arrive on Wednesday to support Ruby at her first World Championships.

"I don't even know what to expect," said Ruby last week. "I'm so excited to be a part of this new wave.

"I was there last year when they were training for the Olympics and it was unfortunate that I got injured, but just to be there, training with the Olympic squad, was fantastic for me."

Terry adds: "I'm just glad she thinks about her mum. Jane was a very outgoing, positive, full-of-laughs, full-of-fun person and that's something they've missed. They've missed the female, loving side; they've had the more hard 'dad' side.

"If she can make a final this week, then I think she's achieved. She's still up-and-coming, she's 17, she's improving and learning.

"I'm amazed how she can go out there and perform the way she does, in front of a full stadium. It's beyond my understanding, I couldn't even think about doing that."