Beth Tweddle is mesmerising to watch. As Britain’s leading gymnast flies around the bars, spinning and leaping between them, the sun bursts through the window behind her.
The chalk dust that spins from her heavily bandaged hands creates a halo, and it’s hard to see where the bars end and limbs begin. She twirls and lands, hitting the mat without a sound – just a puff of chalk dust to confirm her landing. She turns to her coach.
“Not quite right. You released too late.”
Tweddle nods, wipes the sweat from her forehead and prepares to do the whole thing again, only better. She covers the calluses on her palms with chalk, her feet and ankles too. She has broken her ankles six times in pursuit of gymnastic perfection, her shoulder three times and both cheekbones once each. Fully coated in chalk, she mounts the bars again. Once her routine starts, you forget that she has hands like a navvy: the movement looks so natural, simple and elegant.
Then Tweddle lands and her coach, Amanda Kirby, shrugs. “You know what you did wrong that time don’t you?”
Tweddle and Kirby know that if she is to have a chance of a medal at London 2012 she has to get everything right, so she goes back to her chalk bucket and prepares to do it again, and again … and again. The sport is an endless pursuit of perfection and that is what makes it so tough. In Beijing, at the last Olympics, she took a step back on her dismount from the asymmetric bars and lost the bronze medal by 0.0025 of a point as a result.
“That’s why you have to train so hard,” she says. “Every tiny fraction of a point matters. You can’t overlook anything. Everything has to be right. You have to get your head around that – there are no short-cuts. There’s no other way.”
Gymnastics is a dramatic and captivating sport but it is famously demanding. Don’t the relentless training and continual repetitions frustrate her? “Of course! We write down in our training diaries what we’ve done, and sometimes I’ll push so hard with the pen that I’ve gone through about five pages. That’s where I take out my frustration.”
Tweddle, now 26, was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and moved to Cheshire when she was 18 months old with her parents, Jerry and Anne, and her brother James, who would go on to play hockey for England U21. She began gymnastics at the age of seven, at Hartford School of Gymnastics. “I don’t think I was very talented as a gymnast when I started, but I was fearless, and fearless is what you need in young gymnasts, it’s the one thing you can’t teach. A child has to be fearless to have a hope of making it.”
By the time Tweddle was nine, she was in the British junior national team, and placed second in the country. A move to the City of Liverpool Gymnastics Club when she was 12 threw her into the arms of Kirby, a hugely talented and successful coach, and her career blossomed. Her parents would drive her an hour to her new club – based in a council-run sports centre in Toxteth where she still trains today – and an hour back again, in order for her to fulfil her potential. She did: at 17 she won gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and, at 21, she became the first British gymnast to win a medal at the World and European Championships when she took gold in both. It was an incredible moment for British gymnastics. “We used to be thought of as a joke by other nations, particularly the Eastern Bloc countries. They always won, and we always lost. But that’s changed. Now they sit up and take notice,” she says.
“Every tiny fraction of a point matters. You can’t overlook anything. You have to get your head around that”
Tweddle’s victory in 2002 was a real tipping point: it was when British gymnastics made its first mark on international competition, and it led to a transformation in the sport. The main reason for this was the arrival of the National Lottery grants that allowed gymnasts and coaches to train full-time. “It also meant there was money for us to travel and enter competitions, which gave us more experience and more confidence. It built from there.”
Tweddle has added to those early medals and now has Commonwealth gold, three World Championship golds and six European Championships golds to her name. She has been British champion seven times. The only medal that evades her is the one with the five Olympic rings on it.
“Narrowly missing out in Beijing was horrible and I thought I might give it all up. I hated gymnastics. I booked a holiday to Kavos [in Corfu] to get away for a week. But I missed the sport and when I got back there was a parcel from Tim Brabants, the canoeist who’d won gold; it contained a pink Olympic baggage tag that had been given to all the medallists to help them through customs more quickly. It was a very special moment. After that I knew I couldn’t walk away.”
She went back into training and, just a year later, won a gold medal in the World Championships at the O2 Arena, where the Olympic gymnastics events will take place this summer. The victory was a fillip when she needed it most, and a reminder that she could still compete on the world stage. The day of her triumph turned out to be a good one for British sport; she won in the morning, and in the afternoon Jenson Button won the F1 championship. Button earned millions for his endeavours, the BBC news led with his victory and Gordon Brown issued a statement congratulating him; Tweddle’s victory went largely unreported, she earned nothing and she celebrated by going to hospital for her sixth ankle operation. Such are the differing ways in which Britain treats its sporting champions.
Tweddle heads off to practise her tumbling routine and begin her fitness and strength training. Hundreds of leg lifts against wall bars, sit-ups, press-ups and sprints around the gym are woven between tumbling runs and stretching exercises. She looks exhausted and drained, but still keeps going. She’s the greatest gymnast that Britain has ever produced. It is no wonder she’s not paid what she’s worth – Britain would not be able to afford her.
Alison Kervin was a former chief sports feature writer of The Times and the Daily Telegraph