To be frank, it wasn’t that long ago that British gymnasts didn’t have a hope when the Olympics came round. Russia and Romania ran strict gymnastics schools for young girls and turned out champion after champion. Then there were the girls from the USA and China. In Britain, the gymnasts weren’t so much riding in their slipstream as chugging along several miles behind. How things have changed.
We’re at the City of Liverpool Gymnastics Club to meet Beth Tweddle, perhaps the greatest gymnast this country has produced. She’s the figurehead for a wind of change that has transformed the sport in Britain. This morning she’s training on the uneven bars, her preferred piece of apparatus, and she’s mesmerising –spinning and leaping between the bars as sunlight dazzles in the chalk dust that spins from her heavily bandaged hands, creating a halo around her.
Sometimes it’s hard to see where the bars end and her limbs begin. When she lands it’s with feline elegance, just a puff of chalk dust left floating in the air. It seems as if the routine could not be any more perfect. Her coach, Amanda Reddin, thinks otherwise, and Tweddle, 27, is instructed to do the whole routine again.
But all that physical work comes at a cost. Tweddle has broken her ankles six times, her shoulder three times and both cheekbones. As recently as May she had keyhole surgery to repair a tear in the tissue of her left knee. Now, coated in chalk, Tweddle mounts the bars again and throws more daring turns, illustrating the sheer power and grace of artistic gymnastics.
In Beijing, she took a step back on her dismount from the uneven bars and as a result lost the bronze medal by 0.0025 of a point. “That’s why you have to train so hard,” she says. “Every tiny fraction of a point matters. Everything has to be right. There are no short-cuts.”
Is she never driven mad by the repetition? “Of course! It drives me nuts sometimes. We write down what we’ve done in every session, and at times I’m so fed up that I take it out on the pen and push so hard that when I get home I realise I’ve gone through about five pages.”