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Britain's male gymnasts have plenty to prove

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Ollie Williams | 11:04 UK time, Thursday, 22 April 2010

Welcome to Birmingham's National Indoor Arena, where we're about to get our first chance this year to see how Britain's gymnasts plan on bettering an amazing 2009.

Daniel Keatings won silver in the men's all-around competition at the World Championships, in London last October, a result barely anybody forecast and one he readily admits even he hadn't expected.

That was bettered the following day by Beth Tweddle, that megastar of British gymnastics who refuses to leave the spotlight, when she became world champion in the women's floor event.

Not everybody had the 2009 they wanted, though.

Louis Smith, the first British gymnast in 80 years to win an Olympic medal and a man who puts a rare swagger into his sport, fell off the pommel horse - his specialist event - at the World Championships.

Smith, who turns 21 as the men's European Championships begin, needs to pick up the pieces, and Keatings has to prove his place on the world podium was no fluke. Last year may have been a belter, but 2010 is already shaping up to be a bigger test. And the examination begins on home soil on Friday.

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Qualifying for Sunday's individual final has been put back by a day - it should have started on Thursday - thanks to the omnipresent, sooty tendrils of that Icelandic volcano. The ensuing travel chaos has prevented a few big-name countries from competing in the men's event, including Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

When the action does begin (the weekend's finals are live on BBC's red button and online for UK users), Smith needs to emerge from a different cloud. Grappling with the death of his grandmother and the pressure of a home World Championships the year after his Olympic bronze, he endured a torrid week in London and has waited the entire winter for a similar platform to set the record straight. If anyone is going to come out fighting, though, it's him.

"I wouldn't necessarily say it's been hard," he replied, thoughtfully, when I suggested that the last six months must have been tough. "Gymnastics is a tough sport and I didn't come away from the World Championships down - I came away more motivated. It was a disappointment but, at end of day, it was a stepping stone."

Smith's great weapon is the difficulty of his routine, which makes it unbeatable if he executes it perfectly, but is hence all the trickier to pull off in the first place. It was that which brought him unstuck at the Worlds.

"I did the hardest routine in the world, and to be doing it a couple of years before 2012 is a big step," he says, a little defiantly, when discussing what happened.

After suffering the consequences in 2009, I asked him, how do you respond?

Louis Smith at the 2009 World ChampionshipsSmith looks to the heavens after his fall at the 2009 Worlds. Photo: Getty Images

"You perfect it. There's no point trying to make it even harder when the rest of the world is trying to play catch-up. I've still got an easier routine in the bag, nice and safe. All I need to do is get the harder routine as safe as I can and just keep training.

"This is my first big competition since the Worlds and it's important to put my name back on the map, and let people know that Louis Smith is back and scoring high... let people know I'm there."

It was hard to forget Smith is there as we watched him mosey around the Lilleshall gymnasium the week before Euros were due to begin. He started singing You Are My Sunshine, softly and absent-mindedly, with nobody to hear it except the entire British squad for the Euros and the assembled British media.

His coach, Paul Hall, is widely acknowledged as having been instrumental in the success of both his charges, but his approach to Smith is changing as the latter grows older.

"I won't pretend, it's been a tough couple of months for both the guys," said Hall. "Louis struggled at the World Championships, he didn't quite achieve his dream, but he's bounced back.

"He had a difficult time over Christmas, with a small injury and a lot of illness in January and February, so I wasn't sure how fit he was going to be for this - but he's worked very hard and is on track.

"Louis is his own man. He knows his game and I don't need to interact with him too much at all. I just need to point him in the right direction and make sure he's in the right place at the right time.

"He's growing up, becoming more of an adult, and his personality is changing. I can almost say he's a bit sensible now, but he's still the care-free young individual I've known for many, many years."

Daniel Keatings on the vaultIs 2010 Keatings' springboard to more success? Photo: Getty Images

Keatings has always been the straight man to team-mate Smith, quietly going about his business in an earnest capacity with a smile on his face. That may be why he slipped under the radar in 2009, because his Worlds performance had no drum-roll, no big-match chatter preceding it. Hall is noticing changes in him, too.

"Daniel is coming out of himself, beginning to show some maturity and consistency, which was always his problem," he said.

"They're individuals and they need to be talked to in different ways. With Daniel at the World Championships, I was trying to distract him as much as possible, trying to get him to relax by talking about football or how everyone else was doing, but not about his own performances.

"It was quite difficult for Daniel after Worlds. He took a well-earned rest, then Christmas got in the way a bit: he came back a bit out of shape and it was quite a struggle. But I'm happy to say he's back on track now.

"Now I want Louis to prove he's still there, still able to do his routine and going in the right direction for 2012, and for Daniel to be able to maintain the results he had last year for the next few years."

It is hard to think of a time when British gymnasts last had it this good. While Tweddle has kept the women's team in the limelight single-handedly for a decade, Smith and Keatings are hauling the men up to a similar level, at a time when England has hosted the World and European Championships in the space of six months.

With that comes a hefty dose of pressure - as soon as you start performing, people begin to expect more - but Keatings reckons he is up to the challenge.

"We kind of block pressure out," he said. "It just means we've got a lot more people supporting us in competitions, which is always good. Having the Euros in our home country, in Birmingham, is going to be amazing.

"There's definitely a lot more expectation of me now. I'm going to try to go bigger and harder into this year's World Championships, by putting together a new programme to either repeat what I've done or do better.

"There have been a lot more distractions and a lot more media attention. I haven't found it hard to block it out, though. I've kept a level head, got back in the gym, got my head down and worked hard."

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Watch Louis Smith's performance - and fall - at the 2009 Worlds in London (UK users only)

Hall, Smith and Keatings all insist they can meet the challenges 2010 will pose. A combination of recent success and home events has given British gymnasts more attention than ever, and Hall is confident they will not disappoint.

"I think the more you do the easier it gets," he says, talking about his own experience of pressure. "I can remember going to my first major event, and that was big pressure, it was scary and intimidating.

"But, as a coach, I'm powerless once the gymnast steps up onto the mat. We do whatever we can but then it's Louis and Daniel on their own. I try my best to enjoy their performances, but nothing I can do while they're on is going to change it.

"What I'm really proud of saying is they're not the only two gymnasts in the team. They are two fine gymnasts, but the five or six guys we've got for the Euros are amongst the best I've seen.

"In the next few years, Louis and Daniel will have to work very hard to maintain their position, because any one of the six could step out and be the star. It's a very exciting time for gymnastics."

Meet the other male GB gymnasts at the European Championships

Age: 21. Favourite food: Chinese. Top TV: The Apprentice. Sporting hero: Ronnie O'Sullivan.
Hunter was this year's all-around English champion. Team technical director Eddie Van Hoof says he has made "a great effort to re-establish himself after two years of injury".

Age: 19. Listens to: Eminem and Taylor Swift. Motto: No pain, no gain.
Watch out for Purvis on parallel bars and rings. "People ask me, 'Do you do the beam, or the floor to music?'," he says. "And I tell them no, I do the rings. They ask me if I can do the cross and, once I say yes, that usually impresses them."

Age: 21. Favourite film: The Departed. Favourite country: Australia.
Thomas is a floor specialist - "I enjoy learning new tumbles and adding twists and somersaults" - who finish sixth in the World all-around behind Keatings, and is probably the gymnast Hall has in mind when talking about team-mates who could unseat the top duo.


  • Comment number 1.

    The British men's team keep growing in stature and their recent achievements are something which everyone connected with them can be proud of. Today's performance in qualifying for the European team final is another one of those achievements that is pushing the team to a realistic challenge of a top 8 finish in London 2012. The performance today made the rest of europe sit up and recognise that this British team is a force in these championships. Mostly because they know that there is room for improvement on today's performance. With a nervous final apparatus and some little errors, not to mention the unfortunate absence of the special skills of Kristian Thomas on vault because of injury, the team has the potential to get better and can mount a real medal challenge. Though the French and German teams will bring stiff competition if the British men get it right we may see a first European team gold for team GB and who knows what else further down the line....


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