Beijing 2008: The Wright stuff: queen of trampoline is reaching for the stars

Eight years ago she slipped a disc and was told she would never compete again but Claire Wright has bounced back and her soaring ambition brings high hopes of a medal in Beijing. By Alan Hubbard
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The Independent Online

When it comes to trampolining, the Olympic motto could not be more apt. Citius, Altius, Fortius. Faster, Higher, Stronger. Yet when the sport made its Olympic debut in Sydney, the cynics sighed: "What next, bungee jumping and the flying trapeze? You might as well bring on the bouncy castle."

Hold on a minute, argue trampolining's army of advocates, here's an activity which is athletic, competitive, healthily drugs-free and spectacular. Perfect for the telly and good for the image of the Games. What's more, this year Britain might win a medal.

In a busy sports hall at Poole in Dorset, the air reverberates to the sound of feet thudding on landing mats as pommel horses are vaulted and intricate somersaults perfected, but it is the giant trampoline, ceaselessly creaking like a bordello's bed springs, which holds the attention. Up, up and over soars the lone British hope who will do aerial combat with the world's best in six weeks' time. There is elegance, energy and rhythm. And it looks so easy you are tempted to tell yourself: "I could do that."

"You probably could," says Claire Wright, the 28-year-old redhead who will be bouncing for Britain in Beijing. "That's the beauty of it. Anyone can get on a trampoline and they're instant trampolinists. It's a sensation you can't get anywhere else. You think you are going a mile high even if it is only a couple of feet."

Even in a sport as simple as squash you have to hit the ball, but on the trampoline you just bounce. And if you land on your backside it doesn't matter. Most people do at first.

That's the easy bit. The hard bit is when, like Wright, you decide that just bouncing up and down is not enough. For the further up you go the more difficult it gets. When you start talking in terms of triple somersaults and of multiple twists, you know it is getting serious.

The thing with trampolining is that kids can do it before they walk. Wright, who has a pert personality to match her sporty bounciness, certainlydid. Her parents, Colin and Bernie, are both gymnastics coaches who met on a trampoline while at college. They took her into the gym where they worked when she was just a week old.

"Obviously I don't remember anything about that, but I could somersault by the time I was one and I used to jump around before I could walk. But I did not start at a club until I was seven, and although my parents run a gymnastics club [Rushmoor Academy near their home in Sandhurst] they preferred someone else to coach me. I used to play around on the trampoline in the gym and that always seemed a natural option, although at school I played every sport going."

Now a record six-times British champion, Wright has been trampolining for the past 22 years and in the senior team for 16. She was 13 when she competed in her first senior international and was in the World Championships a year later, but this will be her first Olympics. Before the trials for Sydney she suffered a slipped disc and was told she would never get on a trampoline again.

"It came about through over-training," she says. "I looked into doing other things, but my physio at the Olympic Medical Centre told me not to listen to the doctors and assured me that I could get back on the trampoline with a lot of hard work – and I was determined I would.

"My parents got a mini-trampoline for me at home which I put in my bedroom, and I practised for five hours every day. I jumped so hard I caused a crack in the ceiling in the kitchen underneath."

The Wright stuff is in evidence at the Poole club called Olga – the Olga Leisure and Gymnastics Academy, named after Olga Korbut – where she works twice daily with her coach, Nigel Rendell. "Training for the trampoline is quite different to gymnastics, there is a lot of Pilates, cycling and swimming as well as weight training and body conditioning," she says. "Nigel has coached me for the last four years and has really supported me. He has helped me in all areas of my career. He's a fantastic influence."

Wright has won 51 World and European medals, including a World Championships bronze this year, and three World Cup titles. She has beaten both previous Olympic champions. A jump can take her seven metres into the air and she says: "You are eight times your body weight when you hit the trampoline."

She has a masters degree in sports science and physical education from the University of Wales but says the sport dominates her life, though she occasionally helps out at her parents' gymnastics school and is doing a course in nutrition "to keep my brain working".

Although part of gymnastics, trampoline is among the newest medal events in the Olympics after a demonstration in Atlanta in 1996 and repairing a long-term rift with its parent sport. Its origins are said to be in the circus; a 19th-century French tumbler named Du Trampolin came up with the idea of adapting the safety nets used by aerial artists as part of his act. The modern apparatus was invented by an American, George Nissen. An Essex teacher, Ted Blake, brought it to Britain in 1950, when it was known as "rebound tumbling".

Britain staged the first World Championships at Crystal Palace in 1964, and we have always been among the sport's high-flyers, with two male world champions, Paul Luxon (1972) and Stewart Matthews (1980). Sue Shotton took the women's world title in 1988, when the 12-year-old Erica Phelps won silver.

There's a touch of the Tom Daleys about what they do. Trampolining and diving share not only athletic qualities of skill and suppleness but also terminology, from back-flips to half-pikes. Trampolinists are 20-second wonders, the time they get to do about 20 somersaults and a dozen twists, all judged on a similar subjective system to skating and diving. Trampolinists insist they are not failed gymnasts. The two sports have quite different techniques and many gymnasts cannot adapt because they cannot get rid of some of their bad habits, like not keeping their heads still.

Low profile it may be, but trampolining is soaring. Many of Britain's 1,400 clubs (there are 170,000 trampolinists) have long waiting lists, largely because it is now part of the GCSE sports curriculum. Schools may no longer have cricket and football pitches, but most have trampolines.

Trampolinists can go on into their thirties but Wright, who will be 29 just before the Games begin, does not envisage being around for 2012. "I think I may be retiring after Beijing. I've spent 22 years devoting so much time and energy and I want to look at other things. I'm going to Beijing because I know it will be a great experience and I want to enjoy it. Twenty-two years of hard work and it's all over in 20 seconds. But you never know, I may be tempted back for 2012. It's a hard sport to keep away from."

Down in Dorset, spring is in the air. The omens are good for Beijing. After all, it is Leap Year.

'You have to keep the reins tight and hold her back'

Claire gives the world's top trampolinists a run for their money. On her day she can beat them and she can usually manage to get to the finals of most competitions. Obviously we are hoping it will be the same in Beijing. Realistically Claire is more than capable of reaching the Olympic final.

Then all the scores go back to zero, so it is anybody's game – and she'll be in with a shout against the Russians, Chinese and Canadians. That's the crunch time, when all the hard work over the years will rest on one routine. It is all about peaking for the one day.

What she has to do between now and then is keep herself fit, healthy and fresh, and carry on with her consistent training, building height and delivering the elements of her routine with good execution.

Fortunately she is extremely driven and focused, as well as having this terrific outgoing personality. She enjoys life but trains so hard that the greatest challenge for me over the past four years has been to make sure she does not self-destruct through overtraining. She has been in the sport for so long that at her age you have to really keep the reins tight and hold her back. It would be very easy to destroy her in a couple of months and she wouldn't be able to jump, so we have had to box clever and manage her body and mind. You must keep the balance right to be successful. The mind plays a huge part. You have to keep focused. She could do with being a bit more flexible, but it is difficult because of her back injuries.

Women are the dominant force in British trampolining largely thanks to Claire. She's been an inspiration to them.

Former British international Nigel Rendell, 44, is the personal coach to Wright and head coach at the Olga club in Poole. He was talking to Alan Hubbard