Gymnastics: At last, Tweddle is a British gymnast who can clear bars

Beth's gold rush brings welcome relief and revitalises a flagging pursuit
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For Beth Tweddle, 2006 has been what might be described in gymnastic terms as the Perfect Ten. She became the European champion, world champion and, last weekend, World Cup champion in Brazil, confirming not only her global supremacy but her status as the best gymnast ever produced in this country. Moreover, all three gold medal performances were won with record high scores for the women's competition on the uneven bars.

She probably would have claimed the Commonwealth Games title to complete the sport's grand slam had she not been injured on the eve of the event. It seems a valid argument that hers has been the outstanding sporting achievement of the year, accomplished as it was without assistance from a horse or a bike. Yet the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award eluded her, though perhaps the ultimate screen accolade comes next month with an appearance on A Question of Sport.

This suggests that the 21-year-old Tweddle and her sport have arrived and, more importantly, expectations are genuinely high that at last Britain may have someone who can beat the Russians, Romanians and Chinese at their own game and strike gold for the first time in Beijing.

It is 34 years since Olga Korbut enticed the world to switch on to gymnastics, and despite the limited television exposure it receives in this country outside the Olympics, its allure has esc-alated, and those who regularly pack the arenas have witnessed a sporting revolution. It used to be a sport which thanked heaven for little girls; now they get bigger with every Games. The days of the gaunt-faced, anorexic, pre-pubescent pixie have gone.

Amanda Kirby, Tweddle's mentor, who was voted sport's female coach of the year, explains there is more emphasis on athleticism and strength. "The sport hasn't really changed, neither have the skills required. But the training workload has," she says. "The time when young gymnasts were all skin and bone has passed. Now you need all-round fitness and a bit more muscle."

Although "Tweds" is by no means as coquettish as Korbut nor as cute as Comaneci, the proliferation of youngsters doing their fling in leisure centres around the country, and the burgeoning home-grown talent, suggest that here is an icon whose progress to the top of the podium is at least partially responsible for the sport coming on in such leaps and bounds.

As a tot, Tweddle was always hanging around. Or rather, hanging upside down, from banisters and bedposts in her Cheshire village home. So her parents took the seven-year-old to a local gymnastics club "to get rid of my excess energy".

Determination has always been the name of her game. The line between perfection and pain is as delicately balanced as a pair of feet on the beam, and over the years she has had to bounce back from various mishaps, including breaking an ankle and being knocked out and hospitalised after a fall.

She has been coached by Kirby since 1997 at the City of Liverpool club in the unlikely gymnastics inner-city hotspot of Toxteth, where they usually fall out of bars rather than balance on them. "Amanda knows me inside out," says Tweddle. "We are together at least four hours a day, six days a week. In between training I do my university course work or see my boyfriend, Dave, although that isn't very often. Fortunately he understands this is my life, and for me it is 24/7.

"Gymnastics is a much tougher sport than it seems. It may all look very pretty but it is about hard graft. The strength and the different skills you have to apply are as demanding as any other sport, probably more than most. There's more to it than just knocking a ball around. I love the feeling of being able to fly. My body is on autopilot for 30 seconds. Where else can you do that and have complete control?

"But sometimes I get very frustrated, and I'm always being told by Amanda to calm down. I tend to sit and sulk, or pull a face, if I don't get it right. That's when Amanda tells me to sort out my face and get on with it."

Tweddle has no cheesy celeb aspirations. She is studying biology and physics, and wants to be a physiotherapist, and the fact that she is not just a pretty face or a lissom body can be gauged from the title of her dissertation, which she completes next May: "Physiological and Anthropometrical Parameters in Elite and Non-Elite Gymnastics".

She says life has been "pretty crazy" since winning the World Championship. "The great thing about winning is that all the hard work over so many years paid off. Although there are still two years to go before Beijing, it has strengthened my resolve to win the gold. Although basically I will be meeting the same competitors, there will be more pressure at the Olympics because of the atmosphere and the expectation."

She says she has not changed her mind about retiring before the 2012 Olympics. "I'll simply be too old by then. What I hope is that winning the World Championship will inspire other young gymnasts, and there are some really good ones coming along aged 12 to 14. These are the kids we should be looking at for 2012."

After what has hardly been a vintage year, brightened by a touch of girl power, British sport can be heartened that finally it is swinging on a star.