Tweddle to defy passage of time

The world champion does not have age on her side but, she tells Robin Scott-Elliot, winning the title in London makes her more determined to hold back the years until 2012
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The Independent Online

Oksana Chusovitina is a name that needs an introduction. Born in Uzbekistan and a former Soviet Olympian, she is a gymnast who now competes for Germany. Last year, aged 33, she won a silver medal at the Beijing Games and to Beth Tweddle she is the reason why competing at her home Games in three years' time remains a forging ambition.

Gymnastics is a young women's sport. Since 2000, the average age of an individual gold medal winner at the Olympics and the world championships is 17. In 2012, Tweddle will have a decade on the average, and that is where Chusovitina (below) comes in.

"She is an inspiration," says Tweddle simply of an athlete who has competed in five Olympics. Tweddle, aged all of 24, has herself struck a blow for veterans of the mat. In the last six years of world and Olympic competition, teenagers have claimed every gold apart from two; both belong to Tweddle. Her triumph on the floor in the world championships a week ago earned a second success at that level – she is comfortably Britain's most decorated gymnast – and firmed her desire to be back at the 02 when London plays host to the Games. "Age comes up a lot now," she says. "When I turned up at the 02 there were people asking if I was spectating rather than competing."

The 2009 World Championships were supposed to be Tweddle's swansong. Before Beijing she saw it as an obvious exit from a career that taxes the body like few other sports. Instead, inspired by both her own performance and the novel experience of a large partisan crowd, she carries on.

"I thought this would be my retirement, but I am still producing – my body is holding up," reflects Tweddle. "I've spoken to former athletes and they all say you know when the time is right to go. If, in a year or so, my results decrease, I will talk to my coach and if we think I should retire, I will. But London is a huge motivation." So much so that she has agreed with Liverpool University to put the physiotherapy degree she was due to start last month on hold until 2012.

It was three years ago that she became Britain's first ever world champion, but the events on the south bank of the Thames surpassed that. "Two thousand and six was an absolute shock. This time was a little bit more special. It was a roller- coaster week."

Another one has followed. "It's been crazy," says Tweddle, who finally headed out into Liverpool on Friday night for a proper celebration with friends (after time in the gym of course). As a sport, gymnastics has to maximise its time in the spotlight and Tweddle is sworn to the cause.

"We have to hype it up," she declares. There is a Facebook page dedicated to her winning BBC Sports Personality of the Year, so someone is already paying attention.

Tweddle has carried her gold medal in her bag throughout the last week, through school visits and countless interviews banging the drum for her sport: "If I did gymnastics for the money, I would have retired a long time ago. I do it because I love it." There remains, though, space for one more medal in her collection, the most coveted of all.

"I have every title to my name, Commonwealth, world, British, English, apart from one, the one medal I want. If I got it, that would finish the dream. That is keeping me going."

Raising the bar: Older Olympians

*If she is successful in competing in the 2012 Olympics at the age of 27, Tweddle will join an elite list of elder Olympians to win a medal in the sport.

* Hungarian Ange Kelleti won four golds in 1956 at the age of 35.

* Oksana Chusovitina, of Germany, won a silver at the age of 33 last year.

* Larissa Latynina, of the Soviet Union, won a third title at 29 in 1964.

* Briton Ethel Seymour was 46 when she won a team bronze in 1928.

......... James Mariner