Oldham saddles up to pummel his way to top

Horseman Sam is riding a wave of gymnastics success. He's in Sydney this week for the Youth Olympics but it's London 2012 that counts
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The Independent Online

What have a schoolboy gymnast and the new Dr Who got in common? Both abandoned promising careers as footballers in Nottingham to become high-flyers as performing artistes, although in the case of the 15-year-old Sam Oldham, his new life remains something of a balancing act.

Like the actor Matt Smith, who was an academy player for Forest, young Oldham had to choose between football and a different stage. He was a talented young striker at Notts County's School of Excellence, following in his father's and grandfather's footballing footsteps. Make-your-mind-up time coincided with London's 2012 Olympic bid. "It was London's win that influenced him," said his father, Bob, 41, a former Nottingham Forest winger. "He made the right decision."

So it would seem. Potential world-beating British male gymnasts are like the proverbial London bus. You wait for ages for one, then two come along together. When, in Beijing, the 19-year-old Louis Smith became the first Briton to win an individual Olympic medal in 100 years – a bronze on the pommel horse – he was aware that his young training partner already had him in his sights. Smith readily admits: "I honestly think he will be better than me."

High praise indeed for a 15-year-old from one of the most exciting young stars in world gymnastics. The British head coach, Russian Andre Popov, goes even further, predicting: "He will be an Olympic champion. Absolutely."

Watching Oldham vault, swing and swivel at the National Sports Centre in Lilleshall, displaying a dexterity and assurance that belied his years, Popov said: "He is already the best of his age in Europe and beating gymnasts who are two or three years older. He has great commitment to the sport and he has worked well together for four years with a very experienced coach [another Russian, Sergei Sizhanov].

"Actually I would say he has a medium natural talent, but it is his hard work that makes him so exceptional. All his achievements have come through hard work and his tremendous will to win. He is very strong on all the apparatus, especially the pommel horse. I think he is even more promising than Smith was at his age."

Oldham competes in Sydney this week with 15 other gymnasts for Team GB in the Australian Youth Olympic Festival, the multi-sports event where two years ago Smith won gold on the pommel horse, the same discipline in which Oldham became the youngest European junior champion and helped Britain to take team gold by a distance in Lausanne last year.

Now he hopes to emulate his pal "Loopy Lou" in Sydney, although he has been struggling with a foot injury. And here's the irony. All the time he was playing football, from tot to teenager, he never had an injury. Now he has the one that David Beckham made fashionable, a fractured metatarsal. "It happened just before Christmas when I fell coming out of a somersault," he said. "But it is getting stronger every day and I'll be OK to compete in Sydney." Oldham has suffered several injuries, including breaking a leg after hitting the horizontal bars.

"It was my teacher at Keyworth Primary School who sent me along to the local village gymnastics club when I was seven because I was hyperactive. They said I should go along to the Notts School of Gymnastics, which was the best in the area, and it all started from there. I had been playing junior football up front at Notts County and had signed a four-year contract when they closed their Centre of Excellence.

"I had offers from Forest and Derby but decided to stick with gymnastics because I didn't want to waste all that training – around 30 hours a week – and I find it a more appealing sport. There's more variety to it. You certainlyhave to be fitter. In football, kicking the ball well is really all you have to do, but in gymnastics there is so much more to learn to form your skills."

His father, who now works as a contractor, played in the Brian Clough era before breaking his leg, then for a while in non-League football. He says: "I didn't have much to do with Cloughie as I was a reserve-team player – though I do remember him telling me to take my hands out of my pockets." Sam's grandfather was also a Notts County professional and his 13-year-old brother Jack is currently a triallist with Forest.

At just 5ft 1in, Sam is small but powerfully formed, built like a bantamweight boxer with wide shoulders and long arms. He turns 16 next month, and one of his concerns is that he doesn't grow too fast and too big. "This can affect you quite a bit, because when you grow you lose your co-ordination, but you just have to work around that. In some events, like the rings, it may help, because as your muscles develop you have more weight behind you."

Oldham, who is now home-schooled, received a message of thanks from Smith after Beijing for being his training partner in Huntingdon. "He's someone I look up to and he has been very helpful and generous with advice, especially on the pommel horse. He's always given me great encouragement. He's been through it and he knows how hard it is."

Oldham is to gymnastics what Tom Daley is to diving, though he is more understated, and there are similarities in both stature and ambition. Naturally his focus is on 2012. "It's going to be a really hot competition, especially as if I make it I'll be up against Louis and the other top men."

After the successes of Smith and the former world champion Beth Tweddle,the most-watched TV Olympic sport has come on in leaps and bounds in Britain. Now we look forward to Oldham's emergence as another young wizard in Oz.

Message from an icon: Louis Smith

Sam is an amazing talent. He's a really good all-rounder, quite brilliant in some of the disciplines, especially floor exercises and the high bar and, of course, the pommel horse. He'scertainly the one to watch in the European Championships this year.

I've trained with him on and off for four or five years and he really is quite exceptional and a great young lad. He's trying to beat me all the time. He hasn't done so yet but he's come close.

Going to the Australian Youth Olympics will be a real eye-opener for him, as it was for me. He will be excited but scared and nervous too, as it will be his first competitive experience of a multi-sports event. But it'll be great experience for the Olympics in 2012 if he qualifies – and I am sure he will.

He will learn about different cultures and live with thousands of different athletes. It is such a wow factor that you can easily be distracted,but if you can cope with it you find events like the Commonwealth or Olympic Games less daunting.

We haven't seen much like his talent in Britain before and I am serious about that. His only problem is he seems to get injured quite a lot. What makes him so good is the way he has been nurtured by his coaches. They've taken him along the right path.

In October we have the World Championships in London at the O2, which will be really good. I've hardly had a break since Beijing because there have been three or four competitions and it's full steam ahead for 2012. But with someone like young Sam around I will really have to be on my toes.

We got on well together and it was good to have him training alongside me before Beijing. I see Sam as a genuine prospect for 2012. In fact he will probably kick me out of my place.

Louis Smith, won Britain's first individual Olympic gymnastics medal for 100 years in Beijing, a bronze on the pommel horse

Team GB

Over 100 athletes will compete in 11 sports for Team GB at the Australian Youth Olympic Festival in Sydney from 14-18 January. For the latest results go to the British Olympic Association's website: olympics.org.uk/ayof09. The BOA are the National Olympic Committee for Great Britain and Northern Ireland.