'Loopy Lou' on pommel ends British drought

It may seem like a trinket compared to the sackful of golden bullion that has come Britain's way here but the bronze medal won by 19-year-old gymnast Louis Smith yesterday stands out as an invaluable artefact for his sport.

It is 100 years since a British gymnast last won an individual Olympic medal but Smith, who came to Beijing believing he had only an outside chance, firmly grasped it with both hands on the handle of the pommel horse. Smith's considerable talent was honed in Huntingdon, something of a sporting backwater unless you count the equine activities down the road in Newmarket. But horses for courses. Smith's is of the pommel variety, upon which he swivels his hips and gyrates with a smoothness and dexterity that has already stacked the shelves of his village home in Eye, near Peterborough, with silverware. Now his Olympic bronze will take pride of place.

Smith's performance, laced with poise, strength and balance, made him the youngest Briton so far to win a medal at these Games (he was born two months later than double gold swimming medallist Rebecca Adlington) with a total of 15.725 points. Having finished level on points with Croatia's Filip Ude, who was awarded the silver, Smith was placed third after the tie-break procedure. The event was won by China's Xiao Qin with 15.875.

"I was emotional, scared and nervous," said Smith. "It was just crazy. I hope this medal is a stepping stone for British gymnastics and it will inspire youngsters to come into our sport." Smith says he owes much to his mother Elaine, a single parent. "If it wasn't for her I would be nowhere." The Commonwealth Games gold medallist in 2006, a year later Smith became the first British male gymnast in 13 years to win a world championship medal with a pommel horse bronze.

He has the perfect physique for the pommel horse, which is like a vaulting horse with handles around which gymnasts circle the body in pendulum-like swings. "You need to be a certain shape, and he has very long arms with a slender body – a good aesthetic line," says his coach Paul Hall. "He really is an amazing competitor. Beijing was not really on our target sheet. The plans were for 2012 because he will be at the age when you expect him to peak. So this has come as a real bonus."

Affectionately known to his mates as "Loopy Lou", Smith has been at the Huntingdon Olympic Club for more than 10 years. "He's a good all-round gymnast, especially on the pommel horse," says Hall. "I remember the meeting I had with his mum when he first joined. He had just got a scholarship to a choral school – he has a very good voice – and she was in a dilemma. I am glad he chose gymnastics."

These days his singing is confined to the shower – usually Michael Jackson numbers. With natural rhythm, he is also into reggae but his favourite group, perhaps prophetically, is Destiny's Child.

Gymnastic joy for Britain

*Louis Smith's bronze is Britain's first Olympic gymnastics medal in 80 years. Walter Tysal won the only previous individual medal, a silver in London in 1908, missing out on the gold to Italy's Albert Braglia, known as "the human torpedo". Britain has never won Olympic gold, the only other medals being a men's team bronze in 1912 and women's team silver in 1928.

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