2 August 2015Gymnastics: the inimitable Beth Tweddle on embracing failure
WHEN talking about the sporting career of Beth Tweddle the superlatives trip easily off the tongue. Illustrious. Glittering. Historic. Glorious. Golden. Yet, even these seem inadequate when attempting to describe the far-reaching impact Tweddle has had on gymnastics in Great Britain.
The three-time world champion and Olympic bronze medallist spearheaded the rise of British gymnastics on to the international stage. Now 30, she retired from competition in 2013 but remains the country’s most successful gymnast – male or female – and was the first Briton to win gold at world level.
Her story is all the more remarkable given that when Tweddle began her career she was never marked out as anything special. It was also an era when the idea of a British gymnast winning an Olympic or world medal seemed a flight of fancy.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and raised in Bunbury, Cheshire, Tweddle was a hyperactive seven-year-old when she took up gymnastics. It was 1992, a year when Romania, the US and a unified team (comprising members of the dissolved Soviet Union including Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) dominated at the Olympic Games in Barcelona.
Ukrainian gymnast Tatiana Gutsu – whose difficult routines are still unsurpassed – claimed the all-around gold. Lavinia Milosovici of Romania won the individual floor competition, scoring the last perfect 10.00 in a major gymnastics event 23 years ago this weekend.
To attempt to emulate such feats must have seemed daunting, yet in the years which followed, Tweddle went on to break the mould and determinedly forge her own path. She had to overcome many challenges along the way. In a 2007 interview, her former coach Amanda Reddin – who competed at the 1984 Olympics – said: “When Beth was younger she was never seen as superstar material, shape-wise or anything like that, but she is the best gymnast we in Britain have ever had because she has worked at it.”
As we sit in a quiet corner of Glasgow School of Sport, Tweddle – an ambassador for the 2015 World Gymnastics Champ- ionships in Glasgow this autumn – laughs at the memory. “I wasn’t a special talent,” she says. “I walked through the door when I was 12 to work with Amanda and I didn’t really have any results to my name. I was ranked something like 30th or 40th in the country but Amanda said she always saw I was willing to work.
“I remember as a kid wanting to do more. As soon as she gave us [a new skill], I would look at her as if to say: ‘How can I improve it? What can I do?’ Amanda often described me as a dog on a leash especially at competitions. I just wanted to get out there and show people what I could do.”
It was this tenacity which helped light the spark for a new era of British gymnastics with Tweddle winning two world bronze medals on asymmetric bars in 2003 and 2005 before taking that historic first gold in 2006. She went on to win gold again three years later on floor and reclaimed her world bars title in 2010. She is also a six-time European champion.
In gyms the length and breadth of the country, youngsters who had looked up to former Eastern Bloc gymnasts with names as difficult to pronounce as their accomplishments were to echo, suddenly wanted to be the next Beth Tweddle.
“It’s really difficult to say it’s all down to me because it’s not,” says Tweddle. “The gymnasts prior to me – Annika Reeder and Lisa Mason – had started to make event finals at European level and I guess I just took it to that next level.
“I was a very stubborn child. If I wanted to achieve something I would try hard. My coach Amanda said there was nothing special about me that said: ‘she will be the next world champion’. But she never once had to motivate me. It always came from within myself.”
Tweddle was also adept at dealing with crushing disappointment. I spoke to her soon after she came fourth in the bars final at the 2007 World Championships in Stuttgart, losing her title. Lesser mortals would have crumbled, but Tweddle was philosophical. “There is nothing I can do about it now. I have to move past it,” she said then.
Liverpool-based Tweddle reiterates that sentiment when we meet in Glasgow. “There was no point dwelling on it,” she says. “I couldn’t turn back time, but I could learn from it. I had to go back in the gym and work harder.”
It is a mantra that Tweddle, who is direct- or of her own company Total Gymnastics alongside former Olympic swimmer Steve Parry, is keen to impart to the youngsters who look up to her. “I always say to kids that you learn so much from failing,” she says. “The problem these days is that some people are scared to fail whether it’s in sport, academics, their job or life. But if it doesn’t go right, you learn why and take so much more from that. Throughout my career I had so much disappointment, but my mum always said I put it in a box, closed the lid and I moved on.”
It is a talent that Tweddle still finds useful. Last year a live Twitter Q&A on the topic of women in sport was hijacked by internet trolls who posted misogynistic comments and cruel jibes about her looks. Tweddle handled the incident with aplomb and has become a vocal advocate on speaking out about cyber-bullying.
“Ever since I joined social media there have occasionally been negative tweets,” she says. “At first I remember thinking: ‘What have I done to get that?’ But now, a bit like the disappointments in my career, I just glaze over it. For every one negative tweet there are hundreds that say: ‘You are inspiring my child’ or ‘Your career has been amazing.’ You have to ignore that one horrible tweet and focus on the positives.
“People ask whether it changes my mind about using social media but not at all. I am a role model to young kids and I want them to be able to engage with me. Twitter is one of the ways they can do that.”
The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) will be in Glasgow this week to assess the city’s progress for hosting the World Championships and during that visit will also conduct the official team draw for the qualification rounds. Tweddle can’t wait for October to roll around.
“I saw what it was like for the Commonwealth Games and it is going to be 10 times better because it is a world stage,” she says. “You have the biggest names in the sport coming to our doorstep and the fact it is nine months prior to Rio – and that all- important qualifier – it is going to be an amazing championships.”
The 2015 World Gymnastics Championships will take place at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow from October 23 until November 1. For tickets, visit 2015worldgymnastics.com