Sports acrobatics: The flying squad hit the heights

Britain's acrobats revel in the goldrush as they aim to keep their sport on the world map

IF the National Lottery requires evidence of what it can do for the cause of athletics excellence in Britain it might care to subpoena sports acrobatics. It is an unwieldy and unglamorous name at odds with the beauty of the skills needed to perform it well and it has been not so much a poor relation in the sporting scheme of things as an outcast.

It has also provided Britain with five gold medals from this year's World Championships and a ranking of third in the world. These are unprecedented riches and it would almost certainly not have happened without lottery funding. "It has meant that I didn't have to get a job and could concentrate solely on training and improving," said Lucy Pascoe. "Working as well would have made it impossible to fulfil the early morning and evening training sessions. All of us owe the Lottery a lot."

Lucy and her partner, Nicole Cotterell, repaid some of the debt at the Minsk championships by becoming the first British women's pair to win gold. Their success came in the tempo category which involves a startling array of jumping, leaping, throwing and catching between one partner and the other, not to mention a huge amount of mutual trust.

Pascoe, 19, and Cotterell, 14, were hardly alone. Neil Griffiths and Rebecca Law won two golds and a silver in the mixed pairs, including the overall gold, and Martyn Smith and Mark Flores took two golds in the men's pairs. Craig Filmer's silver in a dramatic display in the men's tumbling was almost an anti-climax.

Like all minor sports, at least in Britain, sports acrobatics has struggled for both cash and recognition. The Lottery has overcome one of those shortages and the resulting triumphs should help with the other. It is a graceful, delicate discipline which has been practised for 25 years as a branch of gymnastics. From next year it will benefit in world terms by coming under the umbrella of the International Gymnastics Federation. That is likely to lead to the holy grail of Olympic recognition.

If it has been a well-kept secret among its practitioners so far it has potential to appeal to a wider audience. Since the days when Olga Korbut melted British hearts the captivating, supple beauty of gymnastics has not been doubted and sports acrobatics is more spectacular. It is divided into two categories: balance, in which competitors are expected to go through a range of set moves requiring unlikely contortions; and tempo, which at its most fluent brings to mind the old ditty: "She flew through the air with the greatest of ease, the sprightly young lady bending her knees."

"Opportunities are opening up for the sport not just here but all over the world," said Alison Cooper. "We can build on Minsk and get more young people involved. There's no reason why we can't go on from here and keep winning world titles. They know now that British competitors are a force."

Cooper and her husband Bob are not only the leading British coaches but evangelists for the event. They had the determination and vision to build their own gymnasium in Ashford, Middlesex, and now have plans for a specialist arena dedicated solely to sports acrobatics.

As a pair they clearly have different strengths in coaching terms. Bob may be more technical but Alison clearly commands the devotion of her charges. "There are bad days, of course, but they know that to get as far as they want they have to work. Equally it has to be training of quality. We have worked out that 22 hours a week of training is enough for optimum performance. We went up to 26 at one time and found performance dropping off. Proper rest is vital."

The success of acrobatics begs the question of why Britain lags so far behind in conventional gymnastics. Alison Cooper suspects that it may be down to an inflexible approach but also cites the team spirit her sport engenders and the likelihood of a longer career.

Lucy Pascoe, for example, did not take up the sport till she was 15 and four years on would be ending her career as a rhythmic gymnast. But as the standing part of her partnership she can expect to continue for several more years. The sprites who are are thrown and tumble through the air may grow but they can then become a different part of a pair or trio.

It is diverting stuff as a single session in Ashford last week demonstrated and the payments of pounds 15,000 or a so a year to elite competitors have made future advancement a definite prospect. Of course, Britain being Britain, it has not got it quite right. "The competitors are getting funds which is marvellous," said Pascoe. "But the coaches aren't, so who do they think is going to help us to improve?"

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