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Tweddle ready to show British upstarts who's boss

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Ollie Williams | 14:35 UK time, Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The European Gymnastics Championships are only halfway through and, already, Britain's men have torn up records books on their way to team silver and an individual gold for Daniel Keatings. The woman everyone now expects to keep this British run of form going is ol' reliable herself, Beth Tweddle.

Tweddle, double European gold medallist in Milan last year (in her two specialist events, the floor and asymmetric bars), went on to win the floor world title in London last October. She has just turned 25, but time seems to have lost all meaning for her in a sport where competitors can retire in their teens.

After that World Championship victory, the hunt began to crown the "next Beth Tweddle" - someone who can take on her mantle and become the face of British gymnastics in the way the Liverpudlian has been for the best part of a decade.

But, as London 2012 slowly hoves into view, Tweddle shows no signs of budging. And, at the Europeans in Birmingham this week, she expects to put even more distance between her and the chasing pack.

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Report: Tweddle 'not ready' to hand over crown to younger team-mates

Tweddle first competed in a World Championships in 2001, when some of her GB team-mates for the 2010 European Championships were six years old. She has probably taken part in more international events than some of them have watched in their lives, and is not handing over her crown without a fight.

"I've still got it in me to think, I don't want to walk away from this competition without a medal in my hands," she says when I ask if the motivation is there for an event that is "only" a European Championships.

"I've still got that motivation, I've still got the fight. Once that disappears, that's when I'll know I need to step to one side and let the other generation take over.

"We have got a good generation coming up through the ranks at the minute, but hopefully that will spur me on to get better and better, because it's easier if you've got someone behind you, chasing you.

"This year was always going to be hard, after becoming double European champion and world champion last year. It's easier to chase a champion than be one. If I can finish the year with a couple of medals, I'll be happy, If not, I'll work harder for 2011."

Tweddle will be 27 by the time London 2012 rolls around. By contrast, three of her team-mates are aged either 15 or 16, among them Nicole Hibbert, who is in her first year as a member of the senior British team.

Any ambition Hibbert has to unseat Tweddle at the top of British gymnastics is buried below an avalanche of admiration for her idol.

"Since I was little I've been looking up to Beth," says the 15-year-old Londoner, who was in the audience when Tweddle won her world title at the O2 Arena.

"I always used to say, 'I wish I could be like Beth', and now it feels really weird being in the group with her. But she's really supportive, she can help you get through routines and stuff like that.

"I don't think I could ever beat her," she adds with a nervous laugh when I suggest she may one day become the new Beth. "She's a really good gymnast, her routines improve every single year, or even month. That's how she gets those gold medals.

"She's so much older than me that her against me is quite scary. She has more experience and more confidence - I'll just be looking up at her, and she's looking down on me."

The Tweddle gymnastics machine is a daunting prospect for her younger team-mates, but neither Tweddle nor the young pretenders face the toughest challenge this year. That falls to 18-year-old Nottingham gymnast Becky Downie.

Downie, who finished 12th in the all-around final at Beijing 2008 aged 16, has long been lined up as the actual "next Beth Tweddle" but has struggled to make her mark, finishing well out of the reckoning at the World Championships while Tweddle was climbing the podium.

Since then a number of injuries, particularly to her ankle, and problems in training (in one newspaper article, her coach describes how toilets from the second floor at her local gym leak through the ceiling onto her apparatus) have stopped Downie getting her head down.

Now, her place on the team is under threat. If the likes of Hibbert are in awe of Tweddle's achievements, they are less likely to perceive Downie in the same light. However, Downie continues to rack up British senior titles, and British Gymnastics chiefs are prepared to be patient.

Becky DownieBecky Downie: facing a tough 2010. Photo: Getty Images

"Becky went into Beijing as a pretty raw, young female gymnast, so we're still going through the process of exposing her to more high-level competitions - she's still a relative rookie," says Tim Jones, the British team's performance director.

"Most people take a period of time to become comfortable in that environment. We're giving her lots of opportunities to learn from experiences in the past and produce better in future.

"I hope she does consider herself the next Beth Tweddle. We're mindful that, from a public perspective, Beth Tweddle is the name at the moment, and we don't want to feel as though our programme lives or dies on the basis of one girl and her performance."

British coaches would be delighted if the women could emulate the men's success as a whole team last week - and it's been a while since that sentence was written that way around. The men, used to occupying the shadow cast by the women's team, are threatening to become the stronger team unit.

"We've seen in the men's team that maybe the stars were perceived to be Louis Smith and Daniel Keatings, but we've got a really strong group of boys pushing those two forwards," says Jones.

"Any lapse in performance from either of those guys and selection won't be so easy. It's good for stars to have strong gymnasts around them, it means nobody's coasting.

"We see the likes of Nicole Hibbert and the other younger gymnasts as the future, and in two years' time they very well could eclipse the performances of our more established stars. But they aren't going to give up their crowns too lightly."


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