Prince hoping reign as rhythmic queen can get her to Rio
AS A young Danielle Prince was about to try her hand - and numerous other body parts - at rhythmic gymnastics, those seemingly in the know had wondered if the sport had already passed her by.
She was only 11, but the concern was she would be competing against girls who had been honing their skills since the age of five or six ... and had barely stopped.
Take for instance those dominant Russians, who are known to be kept out of school in order to practice, and, in turn, have claimed all eight of the sport's Olympic gold medals on offer since 2000.
"It's a little bit difficult growing up in Australia to get the hours some of the eastern European girls get," Prince explained to APN.
At the time she was a dancer like her mother Tess had been, and certainly had the body type - namely flexibility and strength - to make the transition to the mat.
But coaches wondered if she could master manipulating the various apparatus - be it hoops, balls, ribbons or clubs - "that doesn't come just like that," she says. "It takes years of practice.
"People, I guess, doubted whether I could pick it up and do well in it."
But, the down-to-earth Brisbane girl responds these days with enormous pride, saying: "I think I've proven them wrong."
Now 23, Prince has indeed gone on to become one of this country's greatest rhythmic gymnasts.
She has literally bent over backwards during the past decade to become a success, the results of her tireless work there for all to see.
Perfectly executing elaborate routines, and doing so with a beaming smile, Prince has collected four all-around Australian titles (2011, 2013-15) - and 21 individual national gold medals - on top of an Australian-record six world championship appearances and one Commonwealth Games team gold (2010).
Only one achievement is missing - an Olympics berth.
It's the last box that needs to be ticked off - "the box that's just staring me down", she says.
"I think the Olympic Games, for any athlete, is the pinnacle.
"To be able to say you're an Olympian is something I've dreamed about since I started the sport."
That dream was almost fulfilled four years ago.
Prince was Australia's No.1 heading into the selection period for the Games in 2012, but succumbed to what she described as "too much pressure, not just from other people, but from myself as well", and Janine Murray got the nod to wear the green and gold - and a variety of other colours - in London.
"Being in a sport like gymnastics, you are required to be a perfectionist, and those kind of tendencies can definitely be the downfall of you," she said.
"I now work quite closely with a sports psychologist ... on techniques to relieve the pressure that I put on myself, particularly when it comes to high-level competitions."
And while most competitors her age have long since hung up their sequined leotards for good, Prince, going as strong as ever, still has the chance to achieve her Games goal.
"I definitely think starting later has given me more longevity in the sport," she says.
Prince has also harnessed the drive and determination of those early days and which only escalated after "one of the toughest" moments of her career in 2012.
"I think it shows more guts to keep on going, and that's something that I'm quite proud of," she says.
"That's probably one of my strong points ... that stubbornness to not drop out when things got tough for me. Having that end goal of Olympics constantly in my mind has kept me going."
While Prince is the self-confessed "grandma" of the Aussie rhythmic gymnastics team, helping to nurture the young talent, being No.1 in her sport nationally again she knows she is also the hunted. There will be just one rhythmic gymnast from Oceania, which usually means Australia, competing in Rio in August.
"Yep, there's a lot of hungry girls looking for one spot," she laughs.
An announcement will be made in April, after the Pacific Rim Championships in Washington and the all-important Olympic test event.
In order to shore up her position, Prince, who was the top-ranked Oceania competitor at last year's world titles in Stuttgart, is training 30 hours a week, from about 5am most mornings.
It's not part of her act, but she also juggles working part-time in administration at a primary school and studying health and physical education teaching at the University of Queensland.
There's also time spent overseas, such as Helsinki for three weeks before Christmas working on new routines designed by none other than a Russian choreographer.
They are more difficult than anything Prince has ever undertaken.
"It's definitely a risk, but when it comes to the Olympics you've got to put everything out there," she said. "It's not about playing it safe when it comes to getting that spot."
SEQUINS OF EVENTS
PRINCE says the question she is most asked is "Can I do a flip?"
"I say I do gymnastics and they say 'show me a flip'," she says.
But, as Prince explains on her Australian Olympic Team blog, "I can't do a flip but I can throw a ball, do three turns and catch it in my feet in a handstand - which I think is pretty impressive".
Prince understands the general public is still getting to know rhythmic gymnastics, which uses elements of classical ballet and dance and made its Olympic debut in Los Angeles in 1984.
"It's quite a hard sport for people to understand because we've got quite technical rules," she says. "They'll say 'well, I thought that girl's routine was better, but the other girl got better scores'."
Two panels of judges evaluate a performance, one focusing on difficulty, the other on execution, with hoops, ribbons, balls and clubs the apparatus to be used in Rio.
"During London, I had a couple of friends come to me and say 'Oh my gosh, I saw this sport on TV and they had ribbons and hoops and they were doing all these flexible things'… I was like 'that's my sport'.
"Olympics and Commonwealth Games are really special times for us.
"It does give us that exposure; people finally get to see our sport, so it is pretty exciting ... even if they don't understand the rules."