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Next generation of savvy teenage gymnasts emerging

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Ollie Williams | 11:34 UK time, Wednesday, 13 April 2011

British results at this year's European Gymnastics may not make quite the same reading as last year's, but the gymnasts themselves become all the more impressive with time - on and off the apparatus.

Beth Tweddle surrendered one of her two European titles (a calf injury putting paid to her chances on the floor) and Daniel Keatings failed to make a comeback in time to defend his own European gold, but the British team remained vibrant, threatening and confident in Berlin's Max-Schmeling-Halle.

Saturday produced their undoubted highlight in Tweddle's uneven bars gold, a day after Dan Purvis had recorded Britain's only other medal of the championships: bronze in the men's all-around final.

But the real story lay in Sunday's high bar final, the last event of the competition, where Nottingham 18-year-old Sam Oldham found himself narrowly squeezed out of the medals on his debut at a major senior tournament.


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Oldham won a Youth Olympic title last year and has topped the podium in junior gymnastics events around the world - but his emergence in Berlin, almost capped by a medal in his biggest final to date, showcases the strength in depth the British have nurtured.

Britain's men picked up a medal even without star man Keatings and despite show-stopper Louis Smith falling from the pommel horse in his final. That result is only reasonable by British Gymnastics' standards - it doesn't hit the shout-from-the-rooftops heights of both the European and World Championships last year - but Oldham is edging closer to becoming Britain's next headline-generating gymnast.

"It's amazing to be part of this team at the moment. We're doing so well," he told me the day before his final, as we watched his team-mates Kristian Thomas and Purvis in action.

"It's a bit nerve-wracking to be here, but it's exciting as well. There is a massive crowd," he added, shouting over the noise as a German gymnast competed. "You can hear them now and the arena isn't even full yet. It's going to be pretty crazy on Sunday."

Sunday nearly went beyond crazy for Oldham: he spent a good 20 minutes in bronze-medal position before Dutch high bar superstar Epke Zonderland, a kind of Zorro figure on the sport's most flamboyant piece of apparatus, cruised to victory and knocked the British youngster off the podium in the process.

Oldham confessed afterwards he was "disappointed" not to win a medal, before checking himself and admitting he had still performed exceptionally well on his debut. "I was so nervous - the floor was shaking with all the clapping from the crowd," he said in the aftermath.

He could easily have been just another talented young footballer. Up until his early teens Oldham was on the books of Notts County's centre of excellence, but he took the decision to pursue a gymnastics career instead.

It was a brave decision and not one too many star-struck young footballers might make. Even parents must think twice when given the far more lucrative, if far less likely, lifestyle of the Premier League footballer, but Oldham is "happy with it so far".

He said: "I got involved in gymnastics when I was about seven but only really took to it when I was 12 or 13. I didn't want to waste all the time I had put into it, and all the training I'd done.

"I went to a school where gymnastics was connected [to the school curriculum] so everyone knew what we were doing and how hard we trained: getting in the gym at seven o'clock each morning, before school.

"My family have been driving me to training and back for the last 10 years. My mum and dad really want me to pass my driving test - once this week's out of the way, I've got to get on with it."


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Oldham was the reserve for last year's World Championships but, having built up an impressive reputation at junior level, has now done enough to be unleashed at senior tournaments. He is a genuine contender to make the British team for the London Olympics and, if he carries on at his present rate, could be the star of the show - even with Keatings and Smith in the line-up.

He has given up his education - paused after GCSEs because, in his words, "I can always come back to education but I can't come back to gymnastics" - to focus full-time on the forthcoming Olympic Games.

"Towards the end of last year I started to realise I could be on the Olympic team," he said. "Over Christmas I worked really hard and got myself a place on the team.

"I'm progressing at the right rate and I'm the right age going into 2012. I'll be the same age Louis was when he went to Beijing - and Louis did pretty well."

Oldham appears entirely unfazed by the transition to world-class gymnastics. He speaks eloquently, lighting up when the cameras turn on. His clean routine in Sunday's high bar final came under the most intense competitive pressure of his life, in a discipline where even the very top gymnasts regularly fall.

"I love doing high bar," he said. "It's the most exciting piece. The stuff you do on the bar is dangerous. Mine is the lowest difficulty score of anyone in the final, but I'm quite clean - my execution is good and that's why I am still up there. I need another six months, then I'll be hitting more difficult start values."

Six months is about the time Oldham has until the World Championships, currently still scheduled to take place in Tokyo this October, though alternative venues are being considered in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and ensuing tragedy in Japan.

But he is by no means the only talented young gymnast breaking into the senior British ranks. Sat with us on the Max-Schmeling-Halle's press benches for much of the weekend was Jennifer Pinches, 16-year-old member of the GB women's team.

Pinches, like Oldham, is outgoing, full of character and possessed of the confidence which comes from being part of a successful outfit. Given gymnastics is one of few sports primarily contested by teenagers and one with thousands of young fans, young stars like these rapidly become important ambassadors for their sport and nation - and, with the advent of social media, accessible ones.

Pinches failed to make any of the weekend's finals, so instead became a vocal supporter of her team-mates, be that shouting inside the arena or conversing digitally beyond it.

"Twitter's been really useful," said Pinches, username jempin515. "We haven't been able to watch all the competitions as we sometimes have to get the bus back to our hotel, get changed and prepare for other things, so getting immediate updates on what's happening is helpful. Plus people have tweeted me messages of support, which are really nice.

"We got [GB team-mate] Hannah Whelan signed up to Twitter the other day. She wasn't sure what it was, so I just told her it's like Facebook but different."

As we talk, Pinches receives a message from her mobile network to tell her she has burned through 80% of her data allowance while abroad. But Louis Smith has asked for updates on the action via Twitter, so she presses on.

She is, by a matter of days, the youngest member of the British team in Berlin. But she has a mature outlook on the time she and other gymnasts end up spending abroad, away from the usual teenage social and family circles of home.

"We went shopping around Berlin on the first day we got here, but I want to go to the Brandenburg Gate too, so hopefully we'll do that," she told me.

"Being so close to it, it would be a missed opportunity if we didn't go and see it. Danusia Francis's coach was telling me about it and I'm quite interested in the culture of where I am."


Jennifer Pinches

Pinches was the youngest gymnast on the British senior team in Berlin. Photo: Getty Images

Pinches, who recently came away from her GCSEs with an A in French, is also exercising her linguistic muscle. "I can test out some of my German too: I know 'push' and 'pull' now because they're written on all the doors. Danke schoen, bitte… I think those mean 'thanks' and 'no problem'. And does schnitzel mean sausage? That's what my friend told me."

Unlike the slightly older Oldham, Pinches is finding time to maintain her studies alongside her gymnastics.

"In this sport you have to be so dedicated and such a perfectionist that it rubs off in school as well," she said. "I always try to catch up and do my work, even if I end up doing half my essays at midnight. Being a gymnast helps me get better results in school.

"It's true that I have to do gymnastics now, at the right age and with the position I'm in, but gymnastics isn't all you can do in life. I want to live life as best I can and use all my talents, so it's important I do my best at school.

"I don't know what I'd want to do yet; not many people know exactly what they want to do, do they? I like acting - and things in the media. Maybe I can help you guys out at the BBC?"

With Keatings and Becky Downie, both prevented from competing through injury, occupying the BBC Sport sofa back in London for our tournament coverage, Pinches will find there are some bed-blockers down that avenue for now. But there would be a pleasing circularity if television gave her a career post-gymnastics, given the goggle box started it, albeit in unlikely circumstances.

"This is quite embarrassing," she confided, lowering her voice. "You know on Teletubbies they did those little clips of random things inside their stomachs?

"One day I was watching and inside one of the Teletubbies was a clip of somebody swinging on the bars. I thought it looked fun, and then I saw footage of the 2004 British team and thought 'that's amazing - how on earth do they do that?' And now I can do it. I've come quite a long way."

The question for Pinches and Oldham is: having come this far, how much farther can they go? Both have the potential, and time, to consider a career long beyond London 2012. All kinds of variables make nothing certain but, if they cement their positions in the British team, the livewire pair could be the faces of the sport for a decade to come. When Beth Tweddle retires post-2012, British Gymnastics will need new stars to fill her (figuratively) enormous shoes.

"We're getting better and better all the time," said Pinches. "Having all this success around us is helping us to achieve things as well. But I'm just thinking about 2012 at the moment. We'll see what happens there and, after that, see where I can go with the opportunities I'm given."


  • Comment number 1.

    After seeing Sam's progress since the junior European championships in 2008, I think at the very least he will be matching the achievments made by Dan Keatings and Louis Smith, if not going further.

  • Comment number 2.

    My big disapointment of the week was that I only saw Aliya Mustafina do one vault and get injured and pulling out of not just the all arounds but the rest of the finals as well just hope she gets back because the sport needs a superstar who could win medals (maybe all gold?) in all the events in the Olympics. From a Brit point a view we only won our first medal at the Olympics ever in 2008 so again one medal would be acceptable. Most likely it will be either Tweddle or Smith in Bars or Pommel. I think hopefully we can get both teams into the Olympic final but neither are strong enough to challenge for a medal.

  • Comment number 3.

    I do not know what is worse, GB's poor performance in these championships, or a piece that dubs those producing the poor performance as "impressive".

  • Comment number 4.

    at nibs: you clearly know nothing about gymnastics otherwise you would know that what you said is pure drivel! to make a final in a sport dominated by the eatern block is a massive achievement in itself. as for louis, he fell, so what. it happens. he will be ready for 2012.

  • Comment number 5.

    Morning, all. Thanks for the comments! Always appreciated.

    gunnerdavec - You may well be right. Sam himself seems very confident he can find extra difficulty on high bar, plus he has high hopes to muscle in on the all-around final, and if he does both those things then he'll have a real chance of outshining Keatings and Smith in 2012. But there are big "ifs" involved there. From a GB point of view it's incredibly useful - Keatings, Smith and Oldham leading the GB men's team at this year's Worlds and then the Olympics, with Purvis and Thomas in the squad, would be as strong a line-up as you could wish for.

    Chris1977 - That was a huge moment. In the short term it completely opened up the women's Euros and, at the risk of sounding reasonably heartless, we may have seen better performances from a lot of other competitors at the weekend simply because they knew they stood a chance with Mustafina out of the picture.

    That said, she'll be a huge loss if she doesn't make it back in time for Worlds. If that is the case then the next chance she'll get to compare herself to the world's best will be the Olympics - which would make London 2012 a hell of a competition, if we've not had the chance to see Mustafina on the world stage in the build-up.

    Nibs - As U14605335 suggests, it does feel as though you may have missed the point slightly.

    Last week's Euros didn't produce great results for Britain based on their recent standards, but - like any sport - gymnastics isn't entirely predictable and individual finals don't always go the way they should. Smith fell, which is concerning and something he needs to conquer for 2012, but if you're going to fall at a competition then the 2011 Euros is the place to do it. Keatings wasn't there. Purvis did as well as he did last time, Tweddle won one gold medal but lost the other because of a slight injury and the perfectly sound reasoning that, this being Euros, it wasn't really worth knackering herself to defend the other gold when Worlds in a few months is the much bigger deal - with Olympic consequences.

    Nothing in the above paragraph will have Tim Jones (British Gymnastics performance director) losing too much sleep at night. And then you have the likes of Oldham and Pinches coming through. Making a high bar final and then finishing fourth in it, in your major senior debut, is a big achievement and bodes extremely well for the future.

    But the point I'm making above is that these are well-rounded characters as well as excellent gymnasts, and that ought to make Britain even more excited for their potential. Sam Oldham is not only making high bar finals, he's doing so with a clear and eloquently expressed plan for how he improves in those finals in the future, and he shows the focus and determination necessary to start getting medals. He's putting the stepping stones in place to get to London 2012 in his physical and mental prime. That Louis Smith fell off a pommel horse in Berlin isn't relevant to Sam Oldham's achievements now, and certainly won't be relevant to his achievements - whether they be many or few - in London next year.

  • Comment number 6.

    I have to admit I only tuned in because Mustafina was taking part and when she got injured my intrest level in the whole event dropped, in a way its a bit like if neither Bolt or Phelps don't take part in their world champs. Hopefully she will come again.


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