Louis Smith: Olympic medallist targets Commonwealth Games

By Ollie WilliamsBBC Olympic sports reporter
Smith anticipates gymnastics return

Louis Smith is ready to prove he is back.

The London 2012 silver medallist has ditched his planned retirement, plunged back into training, and wants a medal at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games this summer.

Six months ago, Smith had been gliding into tranquil television celebrity, far from the grind of daily training.

The 24-year-old departed the gymnastics scene after his home Olympics, with pommel horse silver, team bronze and an individual bronze from Beijing 2008 around his neck.

Ever the showman, his first post-Olympic engagement was winning Strictly Come Dancing. Nobody could doubt Smith's presence and capability in front of a camera.

"I've been smart with my choices," he says. "I've been getting my face in the right scenes. Gymnastics has a shelf life and I don't want a normal job after this."

But the two careers collided in October last year, at the gymnastics World Championships in Antwerp. Smith, now a commentator, watched and chatted as the world's best performed in the pommel horse final.

What he saw frustrated him no end.

"Seeing people compete and winning medals - when I know, if I was fit, I could still beat them - was just annoying," he says.

"I would like to have seen people competing and me saying, 'Well, it's a good job I retired because I wouldn't be able to beat them.' But that wasn't the case.

"The guy who won the world title [Japan's Kohei Kameyama] did it with a 15.8. I got 16 at the Olympics."

Smith flew home from Antwerp unable to shake the thought that he could do better. "It was playing on my mind, the whole journey," he admits.

When he got back, he told only a small, trusted circle of his planned comeback: his mother, his agent and his former coach, Paul Hall.

Hall felt obliged to point out that Smith had left himself less than half a year until the first selection events for the Commonwealth Games team. Things would have to move quickly.

Now, those events are upon us. The English Championshipsexternal-link on Saturday, 15 March are the first chance for gymnasts to stake their claim to a place on the five-man England team.

Max Whitlock, Kristian Thomas and Sam Oldham were all on the British team at last year's World Championships while Smith watched from the commentary box, and are strong contenders to be named in the England line-up.

Beyond that, Smith is up against the cream of a junior system he himself helped to inspire. His bronze in 2008 was Britain's first Olympic gymnastics medal in 80 years, driving increased funding, attention and ambition.

Juniors who made the most of that, like Courtney Tulloch and Nile Wilson, could challenge Smith as they step up toward senior level.

So could other established seniors such as Ashley Watson and Theo Seager. Daniel Keatings and Dan Purvis, two of Smith's GB team-mates in the run-up to London 2012, are Scottish and therefore not a factor.

The field is crowded. There is no guarantee that Smith will be picked.

Smith pipped to pommel gold

"Coming back in, everyone was a bit: 'Is this true? Is he going to come back? What standard is he going to come back to?' Loads of ifs and ifs," he says.

"The only things people have seen are a few Instagram videos [from training]. Word of mouth goes around the country - he's not looking good, he's looking amazing. It's all fun and games.

"The first time anyone is going to get to see me is going to be at the English Championships, and it's a good job I can deal with a bit of pressure because I'm going to have so many eyes watching me, expecting good things. And I'm sure some people will not want me to do well."

Really? Why?

"That's how it is," he replies. "'Louis has had his day, he's taking the limelight off someone coming through.' It's competitive, isn't it? People are going to be disappointed if they don't make the team."

Not making the team is a risk Smith takes, too. Watching Glasgow 2014 on TV having failed to make the squad would surely be a chastening experience.

"It's kind of win-win," he argues. "If I get to the Games, I can say I was good enough to get there and dine out on that. If I don't get there, I tried my best. I got back to the level I was at, and I'm in fantastic shape after all those chubby pictures."

Smith is referring to the photographers with long lenses who lingered at length over his post-Strictly body image.

"It was annoying seeing those pictures, especially when you're on holiday," he says. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that when you've not been training for a year and a half, your body's going to change.

"But I've never been too focused on what people are saying. I don't rise to all the hype about, 'Louis… is he gay?', I don't need to prove anything to anyone. I'm in fantastic shape."

There is clearly no absence of passion about this project. After the English Championships come the British Championships in Liverpool at the end of March. Selectors will use both sets of results - among other factors - to announce the England team in early June.

Louis Smith wins Strictly Come Dancing

If Smith is not in it, what then?

"I don't think whether I get to the Commonwealth Games or not will have a massive impact on what I do," he says.

"Nobody can take my achievements away: the most successful British Olympic gymnast of all time, pioneered the sport, got it to where it is today. Nobody will take that away from me, or take my personality - what I can achieve after gymnastics - away.

"You can have all the gold medals in the world but, if you don't have the personality, you're not going to get very far."