Jumping gymnasts in medal hunt


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The Independent Online

As some of Great Britain's best hopes for medals struggled to match the pre-Games expectations over the weekend, the men's and women's gymnastics teams have managed to exceed them.

Beth Tweddle produced a breathtaking uneven bars routine here yesterday and took a huge step towards claiming what would be her first Olympic medal while helping to power the women into the team final. This followed the men, who on Saturday qualified for today's final in such fashion that they now have unexpectedly high hopes of claiming a medal.

Tweddle, the three-time world champion, lit up the arena with a world-class performance, brimming with style and complexity to score a huge 16.133.

"I was unbelievably nervous," Tweddle said after qualification. "I've felt sick for the last three weeks. My coach said to me: 'Just do what you do in training', and I just thought to myself: 'This is the one moment, and I just have to live for it.' I spoke with Louis [Smith, who qualified for the pommel horse final] yesterday and asked him how he felt and he said: 'It was great but I was so nervous' and I just thought I'm in the same position as him. I can remember every moment of that routine and normally I can't."

Tweddle's final tilt at an Olympic medal looked as if it had slipped away three months ago after she underwent keyhole surgery on her left knee. However, after months of rehabilitation and sleeping with an ice machine strapped to her leg, she will now compete in the individual final next Monday as well as tomorrow's team final. "Twelve weeks ago my world came crashing down around me and I thought that was it," Tweddle said. "I didn't even think I would be able to walk into the arena."

First, though, come the men this afternoon and the quintet of Smith, Daniel Purvis, Kristian Thomas, Max Whitlock and Sam Oldham will challenge seven other nations for the medals. To place the achievement into context, it is the first time their men's team will appear in the final of an Olympic competition since 1924.

Smith, who won individual bronze on the pommel horse in Beijing, is the talisman and the 23-year-old is one of the favourites to win individual gold on Sunday, and his four colleagues, all of whom are competing in their first Games, look to Smith for guidance and encouragement.

A relaxed character away from the arena, Smith prepares for his routines by listening to reggae music. His emotion was apparent, however, when he burst into tears after he was awarded a formidable score of 15.8 in qualifying for the pommel horse final, but he and his team-mates will need to remain calm today.

In the team final, for which GB qualified third, behind only the United States and Russia, every routine counts. During the qualifying round, teams perform four routines on each of the six pieces of apparatus, with the worst score discarded. They have no such luxury in the final, where the scores for all three routines count towards the overall total.

The US and Russia proved their strength in qualifying while China, who won gold in 2008, will believe they can improve. Team GB have their work cut out to finish on the podium. "The key for the final will be to hit our routines as cleanly as we can," said Purvis, who also qualified for Wednesday's men's individual all-around final. "There is a chance we can get on the podium.

"Psychologically, it was important for us to be ahead of China, because we were not expecting it when we came in. We were just hoping to qualify and hit our routines as well as we could, but to be above China in qualifying gave us all a lift."

Despite the empty seats, there was fervent support for the home team on Saturday, and they rose to the occasion. Purvis has already shown his quality by finishing fourth in the individual all-around event at the World Championships, while both Whitlock and Thomas also produced performances good enough to earn places in individual finals later in the competition.

China remain favourites to prevail today but GB's men have demonstrated that their talent cannot be disregarded. In any sport, most successful teams can be inspired further by an outstanding individual. For the gymnasts, Smith might just be that man. "When we saw Louis in tears after his pommel-horse routine, you could see how much it meant," said 21-year-old Purvis. "He is usually such a cool character, so it was quite an emotional thing."

"The guys are heroes," said Smith. "We knew that this time we'd have a lot more chances to make finals, and we have proved it. They have all been absolutely amazing."