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.”
Tweddle was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and moved to Cheshire with her parents Jerry and Anne and her brother James when she was just 18 months old. She took up the sport at Hartford School of Gymnastics aged seven, after trying ballet, horse riding and hockey.
“I don’t think I was very talented as a gymnast when I started but I was fearless, and that’s what you need in young gymnasts. It’s the one thing you can’t teach.” By the time Tweddle was nine, she was in the British junior national team. A move to the City of Liverpool Gymnastics Club when she was 12 meant she came under the wing of her coach, Reddin, and her career blossomed.
When she was 17, she won gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, and at 21, she became the first British gymnast to win a medal at the world and European championships when she struck gold in both competitions. It was momentous. “Britain used to be thought of as a joke by other nations, particularly the Eastern Bloc. They always won, and we always lost. Now they sit up and take notice,” she says.
Tweddle has added to those medals and now has a Commonwealth, three world championship and six European championship golds to her name. She has been British champion seven times. The only medal that evades her is the one with the five rings on it. “Missing out in Beijing was horrible and I thought I might give it all up. I hated gymnastics. It seemed like so much work, and for what? To take a small step back and lose the medal? I booked a holiday, but I missed the sport.”
She went back into training and, just a year later, won gold in the world championships. Now she has no plans to step backwards: literally or metaphorically.