15 May 2015Raising the bar on gymnasts' expectations
When young Liverpudlian gymnast Beth Tweddle qualified for her first apparatus final alongside many of the usual eastern bloc suspects at the 2002 European championships, she felt horribly out of place. Then, on the uneven bars, she promptly won a bronze medal.
A decade later, Tweddle's swansong came at her home Olympics in London, an expectant nation hanging off the Team GB veteran's every swing and release on her pet event. The result, after a small step backwards on dismount, was bronze again, her first at Olympic level, as Tweddle achieved what Australia collectively has not: a podium finish in artistic gymnastics on the biggest stage.
"For me it was the icing on the cake; I finally got that medal that had eluded me," said Tweddle, 30, who finished fourth in Beijing in 2008, and also ended her career with three world championship, one Commonwealth and six European titles despite multiple leg injuries along the way.
"Anyone who'd watched gymnastics over the years kind of knew what my journey was, but they profiled a lot of athletes leading up to the Olympics on home soil, so obviously a lot of people realised what I'd gone through to achieve that dream. My profile definitely went up, and now I'm hopefully using that to encourage younger gymnasts and younger people to get involved in our sport."
That, primarily, is at home in Merseyside, where she has helped to establish a centre catering for about 1000 under 12s - most with no greater ambition than to have fun bouncing around for an hour or two each week. More recently, she has been spreading the word in Melbourne, including to an audience of about 80 gymnasts, parents and coaches during a Q & A session at the high-performance centre in Prahran, after addressing a women-in-sport breakfast at the MCG.
"The one thing that I really want to get across to the gymnasts is they don't have to achieve things overnight, don't feel that you need to get everything tonight, yesterday, and have the results tomorrow," Tweddle says. "Gymnastics is a sport where you can't just produce results overnight, so you have to target them young and instil in them that belief that medals can be achieved.
"I was a little British kid that turned up to a European championships and I was in a final with all the Russians and Romanians, and I felt quite out of my depth. But then you kind of realise that, actually, you've worked hard and you've achieved that final place, and then you can keep building on that success.
"You've got so much potential in Australia, and you can see so much enthusiasm from the gymnasts and the coaches, and it just takes time. Our program very much changed back in 1992; we brought in a Romanian coach and he kind of changed the philosophy and the way that British gymnastics worked, yet it still took from 1992 to 2002 for a medal to come through, and then for the next eight-10 years it was only myself.
"It's only more recently that the whole of British gymnastics is picking up medals overall, so it just takes time, and obviously you've had individual success, you had team success in 2003 [with world championship team bronze] and then you've more recently had Lauren [Mitchell, the 2010 world champion on floor]. Lauren's had a few injuries, but I know she's on the way back up now."
Indeed, Mitchell, recently committed to trying for a third Olympics next year in Rio, ankle injuries having forced her 11th-hour withdrawal from the 2014 world championships in China to leave a sense of personal business unfinished. Team-wise, automatic Olympic qualification requires a top-eight result in the Glasgow world championships in October, Australia having finished sixth in Beijing and a disappointing 11th in London.
Next week, Melbourne hosts the national titles at Melbourne's Hisense Arena, with Mitchell the biggest name and Larrissa Miller, Georgia-Rose Brown, and Emma Nedov also competing. Tweddle, meanwhile, has been and gone, having noted with approval that more countries are becoming competitive at the elite level of this demanding sport and that more women - Mitchell will be 25 next year - are continuing in it for longer.
"When I started gymnastics it was all about the Russians, Romanians, China, whereas now when you look at the spread of countries that are making finals, picking up medals, it's very different. There's a lot more sort-of Western countries coming through, and it is great to see," she says.
"And it used to be known that you retired by the time you were 20, that you go to one Olympics and that's kind of it, whereas you can see, quite a few gymnasts who have been to two, three Olympics, may be pushing for their fourth. The age is very different. It's not your 16, 17-year-olds; you've got girls competing into their 20s."
Mitchell had planned to exit after last year's Commonwealth Games, where she won two silver medals, before deciding to continue onto the world championships in China in October, only to suffer twin ankle injuries just two days before competition. After an extended rehabilitation that kept her least-sore foot in the door she will, like Tweddle, chase the Olympic medal that has escaped her in two previous Games..
"I still haven't fully committed to Rio in my mind, yet, I don't think, but there's a lot of little stepping stones on the way there," Mitchell says. "An Olympic medal is the one that I'm missing, so if I can achieve that, then that would be amazing."