I was not your average 11-year-old. Whilst my peers were trying to work out long multiplication and arguing in the playground I was in the gym training hard to become a champion. In the summer of 2003 I was representing the South-east England in the national finals. Preparation wasn’t like previous years though, unfortunately I was about to learn the hard way that we can’t always get what we dream of. I didn’t know it yet but the 2003 national finals were to be a bittersweet experience for many different reasons.
So I hung up my hand guards and placed the collection of medals that I accumulated over the years in a draw and made my conclusive dismounted from the sport. It wasn’t the retirement I had in mind. I always imagined myself dramatically walking away after a long career of international success, I guess my concept of reality was blinded somewhat from the determination and dedication I had to the sport. I learnt a lot from gymnastics and I stand by the fact that I think every child should have an active hobby that keeps kids moving because no amount of technology should detract their attention to sport.
Where it all began
I was seven when I cartwheeled competitively into the gym. Before that my brothers and I used to play cricket at a local club but after a few weeks of participating I decided that cricket wasn’t for me, I wanted to be a gymnast and as the precocious child I was, nothing would stand in my way, so gymnastics it was
Unfortunately my the local gymnastics club didn’t have a boy’s squad so girls surrounded me throughout my Saturday mornings making my brothers spit with jealousy. I trained hard from the moment I started and always wanted to impress my coach as well as myself. My intense and driven attitude towards the sport was noted and I was soon leaving the club full of girls and signing up for a more demanding gymnastics club that would push its boys to their limit to create champions.
Nine years old and full of confidence, I was selected for the boys squad of Sittingbourne gymnastic club. Training hours in the gym increased and I was soon to become one of the boys to watch. I used to leave school early on Tuesday’s, Thursday’s and Friday’s to train and my head, heart and passion was in the gym. Through the hard work I improved quickly and that was thanks to the team I had around me. We all helped each other improve and recognised each gymnast’s strength.
At times the internal competition got heated but in the beginning the guys were really supportive and helpful. Being the new comer in a club can either be very positive or a difficult challenge proving that you deserve your place. Club training was fun and the rewards came at local competitions when we all started to realise how good we could be with more hours in the gym.
It was not long until I was selected for major competitions, this was where I had my first interaction with the South east regional team. It would be a tough decision but every boy in my local club had their eyes on being a member of the South East regional team. Seeing as we were winning medals, we were all invited to attend the regional qualifiers. Although being part of the team was the goal there were bigger stakes in mind. Six boys would be taken to National finals. The first three boys in the competition would automatically gain a place. The other three would be selected after a series of examinations and training camps.
The qualifiers were held in Woking and my dad, as ever, drove me to the event without any moaning. My dad has always been proud of my determination and work ethic in everything that I have committed myself to. He was very supportive in my gymnastics and still to this day is always there to help in any way he can. We spent a lot of quality time together in the car travelling to numerous venues and from that, we formed a special bond that evolved after every competition. He always knew how to mentally prepare me for an event, but even more than that, he was there to talk to after a not so perfect training session.
The competition at the qualifiers was fierce and in hindsight, our team were definitely the under dogs. Needless to say we all competed and the results spoke for themselves. Out of eight of our boys two of us secured a place in the regional team, and beyond that, I had finished in the top three, securing my position at the national championships to be held later in the year. Unfortunately for my dad they were being held in Birmingham so it would only mean more driving for him.
Training in the regional team meant that the hours would once more go up a gear. My whole week now revolved around gymnastics. When I wasn’t in the gym, I was conditioning, stretching and practicing elements in my garden, bedroom and even when I got the chance at school. Our coaches made us realise that we wouldn’t be good if we didn’t eat, sleep and breath the sport. Every two weeks the team met up in Woking for a day for internal assessments and training camps. In the mean time we worked on personal training at our local clubs and we all pushed our bodies to their limits.
That year our regional team were not as close as I thought we would be. To be honest it was because we didn’t know each other. The only time each member saw one another was when were competing or training. The atmosphere was competitive and that’s just how it was. Our coaches made us hungry for success and no one would stand in our way, not even each other. Soon gymnastics was no longer a hobby, it was a lifestyle that I was prepared to lead in order to be the best.
After a few months of this regime and our time was up. Before we knew it we were driven up to Birmingham to the Lilleshall, the home of England sport. It was great up there; we were treated like proper athletes. We all stayed on campus and we were not allowed to see our parents in the few days before the event started. This allowed us to fully concentrate on the competition and I really thrived in that environment.
The event started and the arena was full. All of a sudden our nerves were left in the training area and we were on show to the country proving our skills in front of a large and daunting audience. The atmosphere was tense and it was a tough event and one that I gained a lot from. I didn’t go to medal but our coaches did. The exposure to the audience enhanced my confidence levels and made me more experienced as a gymnast. The team didn’t medal but we would soon all be back in the gym training for next year’s event.
Putting the 2001 nationals behind me, I was now more focused to continue on the regional team. I learnt very quickly that my regional coaches were not there to support me, they were there to push me to be the best, we were all fighting for the only spot that matters on the podium,first.
A new year, a new me
Fast-forward two years. It’s 2003 and the nationals were back in Birmingham. Having now competed at two national finals and having been on the team for three years I felt at home with the group and where I was once overwhelmed by the competitiveness of the team, I now understood and was in control of it. 2002 was a bad year for me, I suffered from a very bad national finals due to an injury I picked up during the event. The experience was humiliating but it built me to be a stronger athlete. It was an important lesson to learn, that we all have bad days.
So 2003 was a come back year for me personally, I felt like a mature gymnast and I was only 11-years-old. I had taken responsibility as leader of the group and I wanted to make my team comfortable in competition as well as training. That year our team really connected to make a strong unit. Instead of pushing away from each other, we all recognised the same quality in us, we all wanted to win. Our aim for this finals differed from previous years. We realised that everyone had a different strength, and putting these strengths together would make an unbeatable team. For me my strongest piece was floor.
This time when I walked into the Birmingham arena I felt ready and fully prepared to face the competition. My floor routine went without a hitch and when the last gymnast had competed I was given the news that I had won the bronze. Even to this day that memory of finding that out gives me shivers. It was a moment of relief and weightlessness; it had all been worth it after all and I had delivered the goods for the whole team.
In the team event we were not yet given our position as that is kept a surprise until the prize giving that was to follow shortly. I recon that was the longest half and hour of my life. I felt like I had achieved a personal goal but I was tense and anxious about how we had competed as a team.
Before we knew it, we were all lining up in our teams to proceed into the area. When we got in line and third place was announced I remember saying the words to my team, “It’s not going to happen this year” They snapped back quickly with, “well if it doesn’t we are now blaming you.” Great, as if I needed more pressure added to this situation. Second place was called out and it wasn’t us so all of our heads sank. “And the 2003 national champions are, South East!”
Winning with my team was priceless; we all knew that each and every one of us had to battle to get to where we ended up. Our team were the strongest there that year, not just in performance but also in spirit. My personal battle was probably a bit more dramatic than others. Over the few years, the intense training took a toll on my body. I pushed myself to a limit where my body couldn’t cope anymore and as a result shut down. I had fits and they started when I first got a place in the regional team. My body shook uncontrollably and I couldn’t breathe. In total I had four fits and since I have walked away from the sport I have not had a fit since (touch wood). So that is why I have put them down to how hard I trained for success in the sport.
Goodbye and thank you
The 2003 national finals was my last ever gymnastics competition. I most certainly went out on a high but truthfully it was much more than that. Standing on the podium thinking that three years earlier I was leaving Birmingham disappointed, this time I was on top of the world with the most incredible team beside me. The 2003 southeast team were solid and we proved to ourselves and others that teamwork is not made up of individual results, it’s how you cope as a network. Everyone had his or her own roles to play in order to do well. We wanted it for each other and not just for ourselves.
Although I lost my grip on one sport, another soon came my way. I am proud to say that I went on to bigger and better things and became part of the tuning crew for the 2012 Paralympic sailors, who inspired and encouraged me to go into journalism, all of which would not have happened without gymnastics. So for that I am incredibly grateful to the sport and have left with some bittersweet memories but most importantly a sense of success that went beyond the competitions. Thank you gymnastics, you have made me grow into a strong and determined person. Throughout the fits and hard training, I found a hobby that I loved and worked hard to get to where I ended up on the podium in 2003.