The Torwood Wheelers in action
By Ciarán Ryan
The British Wheel Gymnastics team roll around Rendlesham on Friday nights.
It’s Friday night at the Rendlesham Sports Centre. The usual trappings of the international athlete are absent; there are no sponsorship deals in evidence, no hordes of screaming fans. Yet a national squad are gracing the building - the British Rhoenrad squad, and they're sharing the hall with a hockey match.
Anthony, 23, has been Rhoenrading, with the Torwood Wheelers, on and off for three years.
”It’s nice to be able to say I’m part of the British team.” he says.
”Of course, we wouldn’t have too much competition in a UK championships – because we’d be the only team competing.”
”And as the Torwood Wheelers is the only club in the whole of the UK,” says fellow Rhoenrader, James, a modern apprentice at British Telecom in Martlesham, “I guess this is the national team.”
What is Rhoenrads?
Rhoenrads, also known as Wheel Gymnastics, was devised by Otto Feick, in 1920s Germany. When Feick was in prison (for spying!), he resolved to recreate a pleasant experience from his childhood: using barrel rings to roll down a hill. Feick lived in Rhön in Germany and ‘-rad’ is German for wheel, thus Rhönrad or Rhoenrad.
After his release Feick developed his "Rhoenrad", patenting the wheel and spreading the word with tours of Europe and the US.
Gradually, the sport is becoming more popular. The first German Championships took place in 1960 in Hannover, the first European Championships in Switzerland in 1992.
The first World Championships were held in 1994, after the foundation of an international organisation for the sport: the IRV (Internationaler Rhönradturn Verband).
Wheel gymnastics is now truly international – the IRV counts Japan, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands amongst its members and there are many more countries that practice, including the USA, Argentina, Italy and China.
Rhoenrads in Suffolk
John Colles, Anthony’s father, gymnastics instructor and coach, brought Rhoenrads to Suffolk.
“About seven years ago, we had a gymnastics club which was getting very big and we wanted to split it into two - I wanted something different for the older ones to do.
”I’d seen these wheels about 30 years before, when I was doing gymnastics (with the Southern England display team) in Switzerland. I’d stood in one, rocked and thought it looked like fun.”
After securing two unused wheels for the club, John and the gymnasts began to teach themselves how to use them.
What do you do?
”All the moves are categorised as different difficulties,” says John. “In actual competition you’d have to do so many ‘A’ moves, so many ‘B’s, so many ‘C’s – which are different difficulties.
”You must keep the wheel rolling – you mustn’t touch the floor unless it is part of a move. You have to perform the moves smoothly as you go along, not look as though you’re falling off.”
James continues: “The disciplines are Spiral, Vault, which is where you jump over the top of it, and Straight Line - where you roll backwards and forwards. There’s so many variations of each type of move that you can do.”
“The week before last was quite a breakthrough,” says Anthony, “I finally got the hang of spirals. They’re the ones where you tilt the wheel onto one rim and roll around, in a circle. I’ve got a bit of a habit of hitting the wall at the moment, still, I’m working on it.”
Jo, 19, a Rhonrader for a “few months” gives a different perspective:
”I kind of like going upside down. The first time I went upside down I hated it – I thought I was going to fall out and kill myself – but then once I'd done it, I kind of like doing it.”
"We’d like to see the club expand..."
John Colles estimates that there are “under 20” Rhoenraders in the UK, nearly all of whom will have had contact with the Torwood Wheelers.
“There are a few odd people dotted around” says John. “There’s a girl up in Norwich who comes down to us every now and then.” Stuntman Ben? “Ben’s a bit like Rhoenrads – difficult to describe” says John ”He’s a character on his own… travelling around, with girlfriend, in a mobile home… “
Tony, 50, helps John with the coaching:
”We’d like to see the club expand – we’ve always wanted to see the club expand. But the trouble is getting people here and interested. We did have a junior class which was very good – children are very interested – but once they reach 16 they’ve got other things, GCSEs – they go onto university, other interests…”
When the students who live locally return to their universities, the numbers attending the club fall dramatically, so John and son Anthony have taken the wheels to the people…
Raising the public profile
”We went along to Rendlesham fayre to do a bit of promotion for the club – that was a good laugh.” says Anthony. “We covered the wheels in old bike tyres, to protect them because we were working on the road.
”You say to some people ‘Do you want to have a go?’ And it’s like ‘I’ll just have a go when I come back’. Other people, their kids are like ‘Oh Dad! Can I have a go at that?!’ They really enjoy it – they scream all the way round and then at the end they go ‘That was brilliant! Can I do it again?’ ”
”We’ve been to a number of fetes.” says John. “In the summer we were at 'Picnic in the Park', Woodbridge. As we arrived a queue formed and it was there the entire day – we were just pushing people up and down in wheels, non-stop the whole day long.”
They want you!
Tony: “I’d recommend people come along to the Centre and give it a go – it’s totally different. We’ve had people here who totally hate it. When they go upside down they just lose all confidence and never come back again, but others, once they’re upside down, spinning around, they absolutely love it.
”With a 16 – 19 year old we can put them in a wheel and they’d be wheeling on their own within an evening."
Emma, 19, a student teacher from Martlesham, agrees:
”I’m not sure how you pronounce it. I just know it as wheeling – it’s only my third week.
”It’s just something different – it’s fun - you meet different people and try out something new – definitely recommended.”
An international family
”It was a big international event,” he says, “A 12 day Rhoenrad training course. There were 300 people from all over the world. It was really good.”
“The different Rhonraders had different styles. The Australians were chilled out. The Germans were very kind of formal about it. Some of the Americans were just loopy – completely suicidal.”
Will the British ever be top wheel gymnasts?
”The Germans are the best nation", says James “but with a bit more practice I think we’ll get there!”
The final word must go to John Colles: “Unlike a sport like football where you’re playing against each other, with gymnastics or Rhoenrads you’re all working to the same target and helping each other. I think that makes it a much more friendly sport.
”When you see someone who is really good at it, it’s a dance in a wheel - it’s beautiful.”