Leeds-born Nile Wilson on winning Dancing on Ice, gymnastics and the challenges of injury

When you ask most 27-year-olds about their first love, they’ll undoubtedly reminisce on the childhood sweetheart that became their first girlfriend or boyfriend. But for Nile Wilson, it’s different.

The Leeds-born gymnast says: “My first love was undoubtedly sport. I feel as if I was born with a gift to perform and entertain, and I wanted to express this through sport. I joined Leeds Gymnastic Club when I was five, and even through I had a reputation for being somewhat clumsy at the time and regularly fell over and cut my head open, it didn’t put me off!”

And so began a passion for sport which dominated every waking moment. “At school, although I performed well with my studies, all I could think about was counting the hours to the end of the school day when I could get to the gym,” he recalls. “As well as the sheer dedication and commitment I put into my training, it was a great commitment for my mum and dad and sister Joanna too. I’m extremely grateful that they bought into my passion...My school was extremely accommodating too. I was fortunate that they let me sit my GCSE’s a year early, and so I could leave school when I was 15.”

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Doing so gave Nile more time to focus on his gymnastics – often training up to 40 hours per week. “It’s fair to say that I had different priorities to many of my friends,” he recalls. “I was quite simply in love with sport. I wasn’t interested in music and parties. I just wanted to concentrate on something more purposeful and meaningful.”

Nile Wilson was crowned champion of Dancing on Ice 2023. Photo: PA/Jonathan BradyNile Wilson was crowned champion of Dancing on Ice 2023. Photo: PA/Jonathan Brady
Nile Wilson was crowned champion of Dancing on Ice 2023. Photo: PA/Jonathan Brady

There’s no doubt that this focus and passion paid off in his teenage years with a meteoric rise to sporting stardom. His first success came in March 2014 when he was crowned British Junior Champion – shortly afterwards receiving the Young Sportsman Male Award at the Leeds Sports Awards. Just two months later in May 2014, he competed at the European Championships in Sofia, becoming the first British gymnast ever to win five gold medals at the European Junior Gymnastics Championships – an achievement which instantly saw him promoted to the English Senior Team and competing in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Here he helped England win Team Gold, and also had individual success winning bronze in the All-Around Final, silver in the Parallel Bars Final and his first gold in the Horizontal Bar Final. Nile’s first Olympic success came in 2016 in Rio when he became the first British gymnast to win bronze in the Horizontal Bar event and further Commonwealth success followed in 2018 when he returned from Australia with five medals, three gold. However, his sporting success soon began to take its toll on his body. In February 2019, Nile underwent surgery on his neck to fix a bulging disc that was causing arm pain, and as a result, he missed several competitions that year. And in January 2021 he took to social media to announce the news that his millions of fans hoped they wouldn’t hear.

He wrote: "I’ve been sat in my car trying to type this out for way over an hour. Today I hang up my hand guards and retire from the professional sport of gymnastics... ‘Gymnastics’ you’re the best sport in the world. You’re my first love, my addiction, you set me free, you gave me purpose and you gave me experiences I couldn’t even have dreamed of. Unfortunately, my body just couldn’t keep up and that’s okay, it’s my time to move on." He added: "Everyone that has watched, supported or found inspiration from my gymnastics, thank you so much. I was a young boy with a dream. With a hell of a lot of work and belief I’m living proof that you can achieve anything you want.”

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Not surprisingly, the shock of retirement had a tremendous effect upon Nile’s state of mind. He remembers: “Being so passionate and totally committed to sport was like an addiction. When this addiction was taken away from me there was definitely a void in my life, and I needed something to replace it. I’m not ashamed to admit that there were some very low times when I had to confront my demons.”

Gymnast Nile Wilson at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA.Gymnast Nile Wilson at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA.
Gymnast Nile Wilson at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA.

But it wasn’t long before his grit, determination, and resilience pulled him through. “Over time I gradually became much stronger. I realised that it’s not all about the fame, fortune and glamour. There are much more important things – the people you meet, the friends you make and the opportunities and experiences you get.”

Wanting to give other young people the chance to share these opportunities and experiences, he launched Nile Wilson Gymnastics – a successful business which now has gyms in Coventry, Rotherham, and Leeds. It focuses on sharing coaching, knowledge, and expertise through face-to-face classes and online content.

Its development had to temporarily take a back seat over recent months though after Nile, along with 11 other celebrities, took part in the hit ITV show Dancing On Ice. After weeks of gruelling training, and time away from his family, Nile took the crown with his dance partner, professional skater Olivia Smart. “Throughout the whole series, I just wanted to do my best to perform and entertain the audience...I hoped Dancing on Ice would help me, and it definitely did. Just getting into that routine and having a little bit more of a purpose was extremely valuable for my mental health.”

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And so, what does the future hold for Nile? With his typical inspiration and resilience, he concludes: “I’ve got so much to offer in this world, and with the injury the risk was starting to outweigh the reward. I want a healthy life. It’s not a sore wrist we’re talking about here. I could end up in a wheelchair. I’m at peace now and ready for the next chapter. I’m still the gymnast. Everything I’m about, my businesses, my content is all to do with gymnastics and that’s not going to stop. I’m still going to do this sport – you’re just unfortunately not going to see me on TV at the Olympic Games.”