It’s been 14 years since it all started in earnest between Beth Tweddle and gymnastics, with a mobile ice machine, strapped to her left leg, joining them in the relationship for the past three months. But even with the Olympic medal she’d waited so long for finally tucked into her pocket, the sport wasn’t quite allowing her to close the door and walk away.
After an excruciating wait to learn if a very substantial step back on her big, new dismount from the uneven bars might prevent her from stepping forward in life with no demons to haunt her for all her days, there was another abstemious evening ahead for Tweddle, because she is a reserve competitor for tomorrow’s floor final. When she finally left the arena which her every waking moment has been bent towards – “going to sleep with butterflies, waking up with butterflies, the most nerve-wracking two or three weeks of my life” as she described it after taking bronze – she was scanning the crowd for boyfriend, Steven. That encounter would have to wait because she’d been selected for a random drugs test. Such is the life she has given herself over to utterly.
These minor impositions were more than bearable, though, because for a few very uncomfortable minutes this afternoon it did seem that Tweddle, edged out of bronze at Beijing by a margin of 0.25 of a point, would be deprived once again. Her double-somersault, double-twist dismount from the uneven bars plunged her uncomfortably to the mat, hips out of position, and all of those hours working with coach Amanda Reddin at the City of Liverpool Gymnastics Club in Toxteth, sleeping with the ice machine strapped to the leg to help her recuperation from keyhole surgery on a torn meniscus, seemed to have come to nothing. Tweddle’s hands flew to her face in that enormous moment, as the significance of what had just happened raced through her.
The penalty – 0.3 points – was a significant one, where the narrow margins of gymnastics are concerned. That one small step took Tweddle two huge steps down from the podium position which would have otherwise been hers. “Who knows?” the 27-year-old said, when the notion of gold was later put to her, for the umpteenth time.
Yet she might also have taken fourth - three routines remained when her finish, scored 15.916, left her second - so it was easy to see why the emotion was so infectious when the reality washed over that the last of the trio Gabby Douglas, the quicksilver of the American all-round gold winners, had not edged her out. Tweddle caught her breath in that giddy moment and then caught the eye of her mother, Ann - whose simple expression of hope in a BBC interview on Sunday that her daughter would not leave the London Olympics for a lifetime of ‘what-ifs’ - revealed how much emotional capital was at stake. “I was just thinking: ‘Please don’t be a repeat of Beijing,’” Tweddle said of that wait. “I never get emotional but I saw my mum, just as they announced I’d definitely come third, and she was crying. That’s when I started to well up a bit. I would have been devastated to walk away with no medal.”
This was quite not a retirement speech, even though Tweddle’s international career has been wrapped up with the bronze which was Britain’s first ever medal in individual women’s Olympic gymnastics. “I don’t want to be known as someone who was at the top and then dropped down at the end of their career. I want to walk away from gymnastics on a high,” she said. British Gymnastics will continue to fund her as she tries to find what life there can be without the competitive environment which has enveloped her.
There’ll now be a very big space left for her, as well as for British gymnastics, as her description of yesterday’s environment revealed. The noise as she prepared to take the bars was so great that she could not even hear her coach’s last instructions of all and they were reduced to mouthing each other. Reddin barely needed to speak, though. They know each other too well, by now. “I told her ‘do what you do,’” Reddin reflected later, her voice beginning to break at the prospect of their mutual journey ending. “She’s the only gymnast I’ve worked with who wants to do it, day in, day out. I’m just so proud she walked through my door 14 years ago….”
Somehow, Tweddle shut out the peripheral things as she plunged through the routine. Somersaulting to the low bar, feet up, back up to the high bar, half turn, then the ‘double-double’ dismount: it is so full of risk that some wonder why it carries only a 7.0 degree of difficulty, equal to the Russian winner Aliya Mustafina and 0.1 less than He Kexin, the silver medalist. The only person Tweddle could hear as she cascaded through was her team-mate Hannah Whelan, she revealed later. “I’d given her a few things to say, just telling me to slow and keep it calm.”
On a day when challenges to the established order came from a number of new places, with Korea and Brazil both taking first Olympic golds, Kristian Thomas’ bid for individual gold in the vault came to nothing when his second jump took him on the floor. But Tweddle leaves the sport on very favourable ground. With the outside chance of competition tomorrow, there will be no alcohol tonight, though that confounded machine, attached to her leg each night to ice and compress it was dismantled, to be packed off home to Cheshire with her parents. And that might have meant a more comfortable room for a woman who seems to deserve one, having made a piece of gymnastics history. “I’ve got a single room because it’s quite a noisy machine,” she explained. Somewhere, there would also be the meeting with her boyfriend. “He’s here,” she said. “I’ll find him.”