Clutching a packet of prawn cocktail crisps, Louis Smith leads the way down a narrow flight of stairs and into the main part of the gym, a nondescript building tucked into a nondescript part of Huntingdon. It reverberates with the happy noise of children enthusiastically working off energies repressed by a schoolday's rigours.
"You should see it on Fridays," says Smith and munches a crisp, the last pickings of a late lunch. "It's crazy. Nursery rhymes blaring out, kids and mums everywhere." He grins, shrugs, glances through a pile of mail and heads back to training. Some of his fellow gymnasts have escaped to watch England at Euro 2012; not Smith. Not when there is a routine, to borrow his words, to be "smashed". Not when there is, again in his words, a "life-changing" experience looming.
There is a three-year waiting list for a place in some of the classes run by the Huntingdon club. That is in part down to Smith, who four years ago became the first Briton to win an individual Olympic gymnastic medal in a century.
Britain's roll of gymnastic honour at the Games is not a long one; Walter Tysal's silver in 1908, a men's team bronze in 1912 and a bronze in Amsterdam in 1928 for a women's team that had an Edith, Marjorie, Ethel and Hilda in its ranks. And Smith's bronze on the pommel horse in 2008.
"The Beijing Olympics was just on a whole different level. It was crazy," says Smith. "I was only 19 years old. It was so exciting. I was a dark horse – there was not much expectation. But I knew I could get a medal. It was life-changing. Just unbelievable – the experience is surreal, it really is."
That was the life-changing moment, part one. Part two comes in a matter of days, and this time there is expectation. Lots of it. Smith is one of the faces of Team GB, one of its poster boys, smiling down at the nation from billboards, out from TV screens and up at readers from glossy magazines. He is also the leading man in Britain's strongest gymnastics team for a hundred years. A case can be made for a first ever gold medal.
"Oh yeah there's pressure," he says. "You can't run away from it. Now it's getting close there's more of everything, publicity, photo shoots, and a lot more interest, which in turn adds more pressure and more expectation. So it is scary – scary stuff.
"It's the most nerve-wracking thing ever. Ever. It's so hard to try to explain to people what it's like, before and after. It's, it's like…"
His voice trails off for a moment. We are now sitting at a table on a balcony that overlooks the gym. "If you think of the London Olympics – all the years I've spent in this gym, training, 17 years for just that small amount of time – 50 seconds on the pommel horse. All those years and all I have to show for it is 50 seconds on the pommel horse. All that is running through your head. The moment you put your hand up to do your routine, that's when it hits. When you get to your dismount and you are about to land, the relief is unbelievable. The best feeling ever."
At all of 23 Smith, pictured, is the experienced head in the British men's team, a team that also has medal expectations; its focal point.. His success in sport has brought him to wider attention and he likes that. Here is someone who appears happy to live life and love it. He posed naked for Cosmopolitan in June.
"That was a fun shoot," he says. "You have to make the most of your opportunity. I want the public to see my personality, I try to come across as naturally as I can. I've worked hard to be in the position I am. I get to do all those photoshoots and things, I get to travel the world. There's lots of hard work involved but essentially I am living the dream." Whether he can live the ultimate dream will be determined soon enough.Reuse content