Gymnastics? Fantastic! Our man learns to love Lycra
Inspired by Olympic success, Simon Usborne joins Team GB's gym for the workout of his life
There has never been a better time for an inflexible 30-year-old with little shame to prance about Britain's most advanced gymnasium in a leotard. As the new heroes of the national team win medals in London, their base at the Lilleshall National Centre for Sport, Shropshire, is happily deserted. So I'm free to sweat, gurn and strain hitherto undiscovered muscles with only my teacher for the day to witness my humiliation. "Are you sure this is what the men wear?"
Neil Burton, a coach for more than 30 years, hands me my kit, which includes a leotard that looks like a girl's swimming costume. I squeeze in, take a deep breath (no choice) and step into a vast playground that has helped produce some of the greatest athletes ever to wear Lycra.
Tomorrow afternoon, Louis Smith will try to go two better than the bronze he won on the pommel horse in Beijing when the apparatus finals begin. He will be inspired by the improbable success of his men's team, who won a stunning bronze medal last Monday. To help me realise a fraction of what it takes to be a pro, Neil has agreed to put me through my paces. I should point out, as you look at these photos, that none of this was my idea, and that, until now, my forward roll would have have failed to trouble a scoreboard.
But I know what you're thinking. Men don't do the ribbon thing, do they? No, they don't. But, perhaps sensing a chance to further humiliate the sucker from London, a rhythmic gymnastics coach has thrust a six-metre strip of satin into my hand.
"Dis is not a spoooon!" shouts Daniela Nanova, a Bulgarian, as I attempt to twirl my ribbon. "You think you're eating spaghetti?!" If only, I think, before I make my wrist limp enough to coax the ribbon into a coil. "Yes!" Nanova booms.
Time for the more manly pursuits, I decide, adjusting my leotard. First up: the pommel horse. Neil wants me to try a double leg circle, those insane helicopter movements. The idea is to support your weight on straightened arms while swinging your legs around in a circle, moving your arms out of the way as they go. Except that you can't because it's bloody hard. "We'll try the bucket," says Neil. With my feet supported, I try again and just about manage a single circle before I collapse. Louis Smith can do these on a single handle for as long as he wants.
After a session on the floor, where I pull off my first ever cartwheel, I leap from a vault into a pit filled with foam blocks before having a bounce on the trampoline. I'm having fun. It's like the best ever children's birthday party without the children or the sick. To finish, however, Neil guides me to the rings where I attempt what looks like the most physically demanding position of all: the Iron Cross.
With the help of a harness and pulleys that halve my weight, I manage to hold myself with arms outstretched for the minimum two seconds before it feels as if my eyes might bleed.
Neil charitably tells me he's impressed with my performance but says gymnastics isn't only about superhuman feats. "There's a lot more than what you see on television," he says as I catch my breath. "You've had a sneaky peak at the breadth of it, but there's something for everyone, whatever your level." Over to you.
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