Perfectionist raises bar for medal hopes
Britain's first gymnastics world champion is a contender for Olympic gold in Beijing
Tuesday 31 October 2006
Here is the news. A British gymnast is about to employ an agent.
The reason for this startling development in an area of domestic sport which has never previously yielded international rewards lies in the recent achievements of 21-year-old Beth Tweddle, who earlier this month became the first Briton to win a gymnastics world title as she took gold in the asymmetric bars.
Tweddle's flourish in Aarhus, Denmark, came just five months after she had secured the European title in Greece, and those performances have elevated the girl who does her training at the Park Road Sports Centre in Toxteth, Liverpool, to a new level of acclaim.
"When people call you world champion it's a funny feeling," Tweddle said. "It's what I've wanted all these years, but it still hasn't really sunk in that I've done it. It's been absolutely crazy since I got back - the phone hasn't stopped ringing."
She has been on BBC breakfast TV. There are appearances booked on Blue Peter and the Chris Evans Radio 2 show. And she will attend the BBC Sports Personality of the Year as one of the favourites along with Zara Phillips, the newly established world equestrian champion.
Such is the new level of demand on her time - amid it all, she has managed to pop back into John Moores University to pick up the latest batch of work for her sports science degree - that she finds she needs an agent. "I'm looking at getting one," she said.
Tweddle comes from a high-achieving, middle-class family in Bunbury, Cheshire - her father, Jerry, is an executive for ICL (part of ICI), her mother, Ann, works for the Oxford University Press and her brother, James, is a member of the England Under-21 hockey squad.
Her gymnastics career, however, was more a matter of pot luck than anything else. "I used to jump on the sofa, the bed, I used to climb trees, everything," she recalled. "It was my dad's idea to send me to gym classes. It suited me because I'm not scared of anything. And I'm very stubborn - I get that from my dad. And I'm a perfectionist."
Although her performance in Aarhus was not perfect, it was significantly better than any of the other competitors, marking the end of a long climb since she finished 24th in her first World Championships five years ago.
"It was more of a relief for Beth than anything else," said Amanda Kirby, the coach at the City of Liverpool Club who has guided her career for the last 13 years. "The Europeans were probably the biggest one as they were her first major win. There was a feeling of, 'At last. She's done it. She's European champion, not just European silver medallist'. And the World Championships just capped that for her.
"Even 10 years ago you wouldn't even dream about a British world champion. We had so many congratulations from within the sport afterwards. One coach wrote to say they never thought it would happen in their lifetime. But it wasn't a one-off. Beth has been there or thereabouts for several years."
Two years from now, in Beijing, there loom the Olympics - where no Briton has won a gymnastics medal since 1908, when Walter Tysal took silver in London in the men's all-round event. And London, of course, will host the next year's World Championships.
Both coach and pupil remain cautious about making any grand predictions. "You have to take one event at a time," Kirby said. "There are so many pitfalls." Oh yes. Tweddle knows all about those. When she was 13 she broke her ankle in a warm-up and required two operations to repair the damage. One consultant told her parents she might not be able to return to the sport, although that prognosis was kept from her until after her successful return.
Two years ago at the European Championships in Debrecen, Hungary, she was poised for glory after the first day, having qualified in first place for the A-bars and floor finals, and in second place in the all-around competition. But during the warm-up before the final of the A-bars she fell and had to spend a day in hospital with a neck collar on. Her championships were over.
"I was absolutely devastated," she recalled. "I couldn't believe it had happened. I woke up in the ambulance and I didn't know why. I couldn't remember the fall."
Seven months ago she suffered another cruel twist as she fell again in a warm-up two days before the start of the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. "She would have been the princess of the Games," Kirby said. "She would have won a real haul of medals. But she would much rather it has turned out the way it has now."
Tweddle can afford to be philosophical about it now, but the memories still hurt. "It was very hard for me," she said. "I had trained so hard, and my mother and father had flown out there to watch me."
Although Tweddle is hardly a giant - she has now grown to the height of 5ft 4in - her strong build has worked in her favour as the sport has progressed around her. As gymnasts have reached the limits of the marking systems, the Federation of International Gymnasts has had to reset the boundaries so that events are more technically demanding than ever. That, in turn, has worked against waifs of the Olga Korbut variety and for sturdier gymnasts who have power and endurance.
"You have to be so much stronger to do the new routines, and all the repetitions that requires," Kirby said. "Stronger gymnasts are the norm now - and they are getting older too."
At 21, Tweddle is noticeably older than her domestic colleagues, but at international level she competes against numerous contemporaries. So advanced is she technically that when she took part in the World Championships her start value in the asy-mmetric bars - the tariff on which her score was marked - was the joint highest, at 6.9 points.
As of this year, the scoring system in gymnastics has changed. Competitors are now marked on the 10 highest-rating elements in their routine - thus they start out with a possible 10 marks, plus their "start value", and try to lose as little as possible from that total.
Thus, in Aarhus, Tweddle began with a possible 16.9, and did so well that the total stood at 16.2 when she had finished, leaving her 0.15 points clear of her main rival, America's defending champion, Nastia Liukin.
Unusually, the room for the gymnasts' final preparations did not have a television, so by the time Tweddle walked into the arena she had no idea of how the competition was going.
But a glance at the scoreboard told her that Liukin's leading score was 16.05 points. At which moment both coach and athlete knew that the title was there for the taking. You get the distinct feeling there are more to come.
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