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

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.

News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower