Louis Smith: King Louis just loves horse play
He is one of Britain's best hopes for gymnastics gold in decades but he knows that after 17 years training it will come down to just 50 seconds
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. It knocks you on your arse, big time. It's tough, really tough."
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.
"Your life could completely change. Any sportsman or woman wants to be able to further their career outside sport and that's a very feasible option with the Olympic Games. That's why I'm so nervous – we have a big opportunity to change our lives. Nobody wants to finish their sport and go back to a nine-to-five job.
"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."
The gym, as well as serving its more functional use, has become in part a sanctuary for Smith. A small boy wanders up to our table and says a cheery hello. Smith smiles back. On the door is a photocopied poster promoting the club's summer camp with a photograph of a young Smith.
"I've been coming here since I was six," he says. He started gymnastics aged four in nearby Peterborough, still his home town, but was soon directed to Huntingdon, long seen as a talent nursery. "It's nice – this is home. I've been here for so many years and no matter what happens out of the gym, publicity, media, whatever, I know that here I can just be me. Everything is back to normal."
Earlier Smith had trained on a pommel horse at one end of the gym, at the other a group of young children danced around with Union flags. Tattooed across his back is an intricate winged cross, above it an inscription: "What I deserve I earn." He begins his routine – among the world's top gymnasts, nobody can match Smith's level of difficulty on the pommel. It is the execution that will determine his medal chances in a sport where the margin of error is desperately slender – Smith was 0.01 of a point short of silver in Beijing. His hands blur as they move quicker and quicker around the handlebars, his legs, rigidly straight, rotating as if the hands of a clock were on fast forward. Then there is an angry cry and he leaps down to the mat. Execution imperfect.
Smith has two routines, one with a difficulty rating of 6.9, the other 7.1. Whether he attempts the more difficult will come down to a decision on the day – depending on what position he qualifies for the final, how high the scoring is and, to an extent, his nerve. Krisztian Berki, the Hungarian who has won the last two world championships, has conceded that he cannot match Smith's difficulty level, but it is Berki's consistently immaculate execution that has previously made the difference. Which is why Smith is following that old line about getting to Carnegie Hall. Practice, practice, practice.
"If I do my harder routine and absolutely smash it, then it will be hard for anyone to beat," says Smith. "But I have to do that – it's one thing saying it, I've got to be able to do it."
It will require confidence, and Smith is a confident young man. At all of 23 he is the experienced head in the British men's team, a team that also has medal expectations; its focal point. "He likes to be the centre of attention," said Beth Tweddle, the 27-year-old grand dame of the women's team. It was delivered admiringly – Smith is thoroughly likeable, that confidence tumbling short of arrogance, engaging too. 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. "That's what I've been working towards since it was announced," says Smith. "It represents a seven-year project. It's a chance in a lifetime for us – to compete in a home Games, we're so lucky, so privileged.
"Everyone has their own way of dealing with things and you have to understand yours. So I know I can't go into a competition thinking I need to win. I know I can't listen to music that's going to get me pumped. I can't focus on other people. I focus on what I have to do and it works. Everyone's different – some gymnasts might need to be a bit pumped, but I have my own little way and I don't want anyone to tell me anything different. It's what I need to do. I listen to reggae to keep me chilled out. It takes me back to my roots; chilled out, singing along, waiting for my routine."
For Louis Smith, the waiting is almost over.
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