Kristian Thomas: Setting the bar higher
The gymnast who ended Britain's 100-year wait for a men's Olympic team medal explains that he and his fellow competitors aim to build on the nation's appreciation of their skills when they compete in Glasgow next weekend
Sunday 02 December 2012
Kristian Thomas knows a thing or two about pressure. This, after all, is the man who stood on the edge of the mat at the O2 on 31 July knowing that home hopes of ending a 100-year wait for an Olympic men's team medal hung on his huge shoulders.
The ice-cool floor routine he delivered to edge Britain into the medal positions is a moment he will never forget, though anybody wondering if his nerves really are made of steel should hear how he felt a few days later when the Duchess of Cambridge dropped in to see Louis Smith's bid for pommel horse gold and Thomas found himself sat beside her, charged with explaining the finer points of his sport.
"It's not every day you have to speak to the future queen," he says in his Black Country brogue. "I was thinking, 'What am I going to talk to her about?' and then I started getting sweaty palms. I texted my mum and she said, 'Make sure you stand up, be polite', the usual mum stuff. I knew when I was talking to her that I was on TV because my phone was going off constantly, vibrating in my pocket."
If Thomas, endearingly, does not take himself too seriously in conversation, the opposite applies to British gymnastics after an Olympics that produced four medals, double the target set by the funding body, UK Sport. After the men's team had set the ball rolling, Smith and Max Whitlock earned silver and bronze respectively on the pommel horse and Beth Tweddle won a richly deserved bronze on the uneven bars. Those cherished memories will be happily relived when the British team reunite for an end-of-year dinner in Glasgow next weekend, following this country's first major gymnastics meet since London 2012 – Saturday's World Cup event at the Emirates Arena, venue for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
That it was sold out weeks ago is little surprise, Thomas having seen for himself the impact of the Olympics on the sport's popularity. "I've had people who never in a million years would watch gymnastics come up and say to me, 'We couldn't take our eyes off the gymnastics', and that's really nice to hear. Gymnastics, especially on the male side, is not a well-publicised sport, it is not up there with the athletics and swimming, so hopefully now we have changed people's perceptions."
Rightly so, for, as noise and nerves go, the men's team final at an electric O2 was right up there. Thomas had already got the crowd roaring with the day's highest individual score in the vault (16.550) before, in the final rotation, he emulated team-mates Whitlock and Dan Purvis's 15-plus displays on the floor to secure the men's first podium finish since 1912, when rope-climbing was a discipline. "Normally you are in your own little zone when you're doing your routines, you can't hear the crowd, but with each tumble I could hear them getting louder and louder. They gave me the extra little push I needed."
For a short while his 15.200 seemed enough for silver, but a successful Japanese appeal against their star gymnast Kohei Uchimura's score after a fumbled-looking pommel horse dismount meant eventual bronze. "Some days it would have been given, some days it wouldn't," Thomas reflects magnanimously.
The question now is whether British gymnastics can build on its Olympic feats without its two biggest names. Smith has swapped the pommel horse for reality TV and his impressive turn on Strictly Come Dancing – no surprise to Thomas, who describes him as "a performer through and through". The retired Tweddle, meanwhile, is rumoured to be preparing for a turn on ITV's Dancing on Ice.
Yet Thomas is optimistic. "The future for the men's side looks really positive," he says, pointing to Britain's three successive European junior gold medals, and citing the 16-year-old Rebecca Tunney "coming through the ranks" on the women's side.
That said, he acknowledges that finding the old flame of desire after the thrill of London has not come easy. Post-Olympics, there have been public appearances – on the pitch at Molineux, home of his beloved Wolves, and turning on the Christmas lights in his home town of Wednesfield – and new opportunities, including some motivational speaking. Motivating himself for the slog of 25-30 hours a week of training was a challenge. "It's just very hard because you've had such a high in the summer and it's almost like, what do I do, how do I try and repeat that sort of thing?" he says, fresh from a session at the national training centre in Lilleshall.
Preparing your body for gymnastic competition is no mean feat – the G-force of a gymnast's landing can be as high as 15G, compared with the 9G a fighter pilot endures in flight – and conversations in the Olympic village underlined for Thomas his sport's "unique" demands.
"We don't use the weights gym, all our muscle bulk is just from lifting our own body weight. A lot of people from other sports were really surprised by that. It took a good five to six weeks just to be able to do some of my skills again without the aches and the pains, that was tough.
"I think I've found the balance now and I am starting to enjoy the routines," adds Thomas, whose "mid-term goal" is the Commonweath Games. He will be 27 when Rio comes around, yet right now the 2016 Olympics hold only a "very small place" in his thoughts, and understandably so as the afterglow of London – historic medals, Kate Middleton et al – lingers on.
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