Louis Smith: 'I'm in pain every day but what feels like punishment is how you improve'

His bronze in Beijing was a major breakthrough for British gymnastics. Now, he tells Richard Rae, the pressure is on for 2012
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After Louis Smith won what was from the public point of view an entirely unexpected bronze medal on the pommel horse at the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, the young gymnast pointedly asked what he, and the rest of the British team, might have achieved with proper backing.

Three years of what Smith acknowledges to have been vastly improved support later, he is completing his final preparations for next month's World Championships, the start of a cycle of competition which ends in London 2012.

"Do I feel better prepared than for Beijing?" he asks, sitting in the superbly equipped gymnastics hall at the National Sports Centre in Lilleshall. "Infinitely. And I think everyone in the British squad feels the same way, there's so much more confidence. A lot of time before we've had potential, but the confidence wasn't really there, you'd be thinking; 'How can I compete against the Chinese and the Russians?' But it's only taken one person to be up there on the rostrum, and that's it, the belief is there.

"If you look at the men's track record up until Beijing we weren't up to much, we were coming nowhere in team competitions. But we started to get lottery funding in about 2006, and after Beijing it drastically improved, and you can see the difference it has made in the men's team.

"Each major competition we've been in we've improved, and we broke into the top eight in the world last year, which is just amazing. We've got Daniel Purvis and Daniel Keatings winning medals at world level now, Kristian Thomas all-round sixth in the worlds, Sam Oldham who is just 18 making the European Final on the bar, and it goes to show with the fundamental backing and belief an Olympic medal is possible."

In fact, muses Smith, he might almost be more pleased to be part of a medal-winning team than by picking up a second individual medal. Then he grins. "I did say, 'Almost'. Because I do want to win another individual medal pretty badly."

Given he is that much better prepared, more medals – individual and team – appear to be a genuinely realistic prospect. Even Smith's coach Paul Hall, admits to being surprised by the progress made by Smith and the rest of the British squad in the last couple of years.

"To be honest I can't believe how far we've come in a relatively short time, and that's hugely encouraging for Louis and the other gymnasts as individuals and for the future of the sport in the country," said Hall.

"But there is still a lot that can go wrong. They've increased their skill levels massively to be up there with the best in the world, they're on the edge of their abilities, and when you're on the edge it's very easy to make a tiny error and fall off. Producing an absolutely clean routine on one set day is never a given."

As Hall points out, no one has actually qualified for the Olympics yet, although finishing as one of the top eight teams at the World Championships in Tokyo would guarantee British participation in London 2012, a result which if achieved by both men and women would mean, "job done" as far as Olympic performance director Tim Jones is concerned.

"That's very much the priority – only then would we start looking at medals," said Jones. "But when you do, it's hard not to get a little excited, because there are realistic chances for a range of our gymnasts, not just Louis and Beth [Tweddle]. In terms of preparation, we'd take where we are right at this moment in time."

For Smith, pressure is a relative concept. His against-the-odds story, brought up by a single mother on a Peterborough council estate and doing all his early training in a small public gymnasium in Huntingdon, has become familiar. Along with Keatings, Luke Folwell and Cameron MacKenzie, he is still based at that Huntingdon gym, but is as likely to be found using the much better facilities provided by British Gymnastics in Loughborough or Lilleshall.

The motivation, however, remains palpably fierce. "Winning an Olympic medal can change your life, but it has to be earned. I'm telling you now I feel great and well-prepared, but there isn't a session when I'm not in pain. I have to have ultrasound and infrared treatments on various long-standing injuries, and when I retire I'll have to have an operation on my knee.

"But I've learned that what feels like punishment is how you improve. I originally got good at pommel because Paul [Hall] kept sending me to it as punishment. A lot of gymnasts dislike it because it's so hard, but I was constantly on it.

"Gymnastics is all about discipline. You don't argue back, you line up before the start of a session, you arrive at least 10 minutes before the session is due to start, you apologise if you're late. Gymnastics has taught me valuable life lessons, it's taught me the importance of discipline, and a lot of kids are lacking that these days."

It is a theme Smith pursues. "I reckon they should use gymnastics as a boot camp. Seriously. You see those naughty kids on TV and they go to a boot camp, well, get them in a gym. Make them, if you have to. Then they'd learn the life lessons. I reckon there's a future in that.

"But for the moment I'm not looking beyond the next few months of competition, because my future path will depend on that. I've got other interests, I'm into music and fashion, and I definitely want to do other things in sport, media work and so on. I've even set up my own company called Louis Smith Management, but haven't done anything with it yet. Because it's really all about the Olympics now, isn't it?"

Smith's horsing around

Born 22 April 1989, Peterborough

Height 1.79m

Weight 76kg

Major honours (all in the pommel horse)

2006 Commonwealth Games Gold (and Bronze in the men's team event)

2007 World Championships Bronze

2008 Olympics Bronze

2009 European Championships Silver

2010 World Championships Silver

2010 European Men's Championships Silver (and Silver in the team event)

In Beijing Smith became the first Briton to win a medal in individual gymnastics at the Olympics since 1908. He is also only the second black male gymnast to win an Olympic medal.