First there was Ludmilla Tourischeva, the great Soviet gymnast. That was in the late 1960s and early 70s and we looked at her and sighed and said: we’ll never find a British woman as graceful as that.
Then there was Olga Korbut, another Russian, the sport’s great scene-stealer. At the 1972 Olympic Games she made the world gasp with a backward somersault on the beam. And we looked at her and sighed and said: we’ll never find a British woman as brave as that.
And after that came the Romanian Nadia Comaneci, who at the 1976 Olympic Games scored no fewer than seven perfect tens, and won three gold medals. And we looked at her and sighed and said: we’ll never find a British woman as graceful and as brave as that.
But we did. Back in the days of Ludmilla and Olga and Nadia, the idea of a British woman winning the big prizes in gymnastics seemed about as likely as Britain landing a rocket on the Moon.
We lacked the tradition and the culture, we lacked the know-how and the experience, and what’s more, many people were inclined to think, we lacked the natural-born ability.
Beth Tweddle changed all that. She was the first female British gymnast to win a medal at the World Championships (2003), European Championships (2006) and Olympic Games (2012). She did all that because she dared to fail – and if she failed, she learnt how to fail better. And ultimately she succeeded.
I once visited the gym in Liverpool where she trained. There are some athletes a coach needs to push and motivate, but the job of Tweddle’s coach, Amanda Reddin, was to get her to take a break.
Tweddle won her first world title on her favourite piece of equipment, the asymmetric bars, in 2006. Three years later I was there at the O2 when she won her second world title on the floor. A couple of days earlier she had fallen from the bars and landed on her head: but never mind that, she had a competition to win, so she got on with it – and did.
At the 2012 London Olympics, Tweddle had an operation on her knee 12 weeks before the Games began – and still won a bronze on the bars at the age of 27. She then retired. Since then she has been on Dancing on Ice and The Jump.
She does punditry for the BBC – she’ll be back on air for the Commonwealth Games next month – with a generous heart and the eye of a nit-picking eagle. Behind it all is her conviction that the sport of gymnastics is wonderful, beautiful and necessary: a sport that lifts the heart.
When a nation has no great tradition in a sport, you need a pioneer – not just to persuade us to watch, but also to inspire kids to take part. That was Tweddle. Britain now produces top-class gymnasts and no one is greatly surprised: Rebecca and Elisa Downie, Claudia Fragapane (all out of this week’s World Cup with injuries), Amy Tinkler… all know the debt they owe to Tweddle.
The great performers in sport have a mixture of talent and tenacity. Tenacity can be described as the talent for having talent, and Tweddle had it in buckets.
So when you watch the World Cup, think of the debt we owe to her and recall her as a very special kind of athlete. And then admire her heirs… if you like, her heirs and graces.
Live coverage of the Gymnastics World Cup will be on the BBC red button, Wednesday and Thursday at 7pm, with highlights on Saturday 24 March on BBC1
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