For some followers of gymnastics, Lisa Mason will have arrived on the national scene two years ago seemingly from nowhere, and at 31 years old started contesting finals, and taking medals at the English and British Championships. If the name wasn’t familiar you could be forgiven, the 13 years after she had last competed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics is a life time in elite gymnastics, and quite literally when you consider that Catherine Lyons and Teal Grindle were both born in that Olympic year, and will turn senior in just three months.
When you consider Lisa’s first elite career, things start to become more clear, the best British gymnast of her time, and the most successful international gymnast this country had seen up to that point. The trail blazer for the international finals and medals we have come to expect, before Beth there was Lisa, and in a twist that few would have ever expected, as Beth made her swansong, Lisa made her return.
In her first career Lisa trained at Huntingdon under coach Terry Sharpington, she took the British senior AA title three years in a row from 96 to 98, to this day she is second only to Beth on the list of multiple senior champions. 1998 was Lisa’s most successful year internationally, she took a full set of medals at Grand Prix competitions, at a time when the best gymnasts in the world would contest these events.
Lisa’s most notable victory was taking the floor title at Cottbus ahead of both Elena Produnova who was the reigning world bronze medalist on this piece, and Svetlana Khorkina who was the reigning World and European AA champion, as well as the reigning World and European silver medalist on floor. A huge achievement against such strong competition, and in those days, even more notable as being a British gymnast could often make things a little harder when it came to climbing right to the top.
This was never more more apparent that at the 1998 European championships held in St. Petersburg Russia. Lisa placed 4th in the floor final, a huge achievement for a British Gymnast at the time, and the highest position anyone had achieved up to that point. On the face of it, a result to be celebrated, but the reality is it was tarnished by losing out on the bronze medal to Romania’s Simona Amanar by only 0.05, many thought that Lisa deserved the bronze medal, among that many were Simona Amanar and Romania’s coach Octavian Belu who apologised to Lisa that his own gymnast was awarded the medal she deserved.
Judge for yourself:
Lisa FX 1998 Europeans Final
Simona FX 1998 Europeans Final (It says JR in the title, I’m not sure why as Simona was senior from 1996)
What is so unfair about this is that while Lisa went down in history as one of Britain’s greatest gymnasts, she genuinely should have gone down as Britain’s first major medal winner, and there is a huge distinction between the two.
Lisa competed at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, a member of the first ever full team to qualify, the British ladies all went clean to finish in 10th place, and Lisa advanced to the AA final. The less said about that final the better, the vault debacle meant in my eyes the competition should have been run again, if you have crashed one piece in an Olympic final it’s all over, yes you should try to make the best of what is left, but but you only have to watch the competition to see how many gymnasts were affected on subsequent pieces. Just being able to vault again was no way near to being recompense enough.
Lisa was unlucky to miss out on the beam final, 0.025 behind Elise Ray of the United States. I personally feel Lisa performed the better routine in that she had less errors, and should have taken her place in the final, but it was not to be. You can see Lisa’s routine from 04.12 here:
And Elise’s here.
So as many do, on returning from the Olympics Lisa retired, I believe she did initially begin a come back before falling pregnant with her daughter Yalarna who was born in 2005. After that she got on with the busy job of being a single mum raising and providing for her young child. In 2012 I attended the London Olympics, and before each session a group of gymnasts gave a demonstration on each piece before the judges and gymnasts marched out. On qualifications day Lisa Mason took to the floor, and if my memory serves me correctly tumbled a double twist. Lisa says that although she was only able to take part on one of the exhibition performances due to injury, she was surprised at how easily her skills were returning, and just like that, after twelve years away from elite competition, a second career was born.
For me, impressive as Lisa’s first career was, her second is even more so. It takes guts when you have been at the top in your country to come back and alter your legacy, it takes guts to put yourself out there in your 30’s when your nation has completely revamped it’s program, and now expects finals and medals at the highest level. There are many more gymnasts competing for much longer nowadays which is fantastic for the sport, but only one is trying to fight her way back on to a top eight team after twelve years out, taking on a whole new code, a whole new scoring system, and a completely different piece of apparatus in the new vaulting table.
Lisa has said that her skills returned surprisingly quickly, it was just her strength and conditioning she needed to work on. For me this is no surprise, Lisa is from the era where ballet was a daily event, and basics, form, and technique came above everything else. Training in this way, especially the classical ballet training cements strength in the joints, postural alignment and precision of movement, keeping the joints stable through development, and therefore far more likely to last a lot longer. There is a huge difference in posture among many of the elite gymnasts of the past, and those of today, the drive for difficulty over the drive for correct development sees so many promising gymnasts driven from sport the through injury far too soon.
Barely six months after returning to training Lisa took the 2013 English Senior Vault and beam titles, then placed 4th on Vault at the British Championships. The same lines, form and technique were evident from the start, compare Lisa vaulting in 1996 to the same vault seventeen years later:
In 2014 Lisa placed 5th on bars and 6th on floor at the English championships, and received a call up to the England squad. At the British a disappointing beam routine saw her finish in 11th AA, but she qualified for finals on the other three pieces, including in second place on floor with a beautiful routine she choreographed herself. If you are going to do Blues for Klook you have to do it well, Slivia Mitova’s classic routine to this piece casts a long shadow.
Unfortunately Lisa injured her ankle, and was unable to compete in apparatus finals. A huge shame given her qualifying position.
In the same year, Lisa was called to represent England at the Leverkusen Cup where she placed thrid on vault, and first on beam. Notice how one of the tallest gymnasts competing kicks out her full twist to plant it on the beam, no landing deductions here!
2015 has seen Lisa getting stronger, and achieving even better results. Fourth AA and on Vault, as well as second on floor at the English, then 7th AA, and bronze on floor with another unique, beautifully choreographed, performed, and executed routine. Fifteen years after she was last taking national medals, it’s impossible not to be impressed.
An invitation to world trials was the reward for this years efforts and results, although no place on national squad. Make of that what you will. Unfortunately Lisa had to pull out after the initial round of trials through injury, so not to be this time, but will we see her back next year fighting for team spots?
This is where Lisa stands out from her peers yet again, although this time for reasons she would rather not. Anyone who has supported an elite gymnast knows it costs, it costs in time, it costs in effort, it costs in money.
Time will be no new thing, as a gymnast you get used to long days, you go through school, you train six days a week, if you are still a gymnast when you have finished your education, you train full time. You work long and hard from a very early age, it’s just what you do.
Any coaches will know that not so long ago, and for many even now, coaching is just one of your jobs, you work full time and you coach. I myself after putting in the long school and training hours when I finished my education then put in sixty plus hour weeks coaching and working, you do it for the love not the money.
So Lisa works, and she trains, she also in her most important role, raises her daughter.
Lisa now trains at Heathrow with Vince and Michelle Walduck, and Natallia Illienko, she travels 100 miles a day to train at huge cost as anyone who drives will know. When you get past the age your parents are supporting you, you are usually either finished with elite gymnastics, or you are funded. Where Lisa stands out from the rest of her competition is that she is neither. She is in the unique position of having to completely support herself, her daughter, and all of her training costs, and yet has managed to rejoin and compete with the top gymnasts in this country.
Sadly this may not continue, Lisa is looking for assistance to be able to continue her training at the level she is, and fight for places on future British teams. In order to be considered, she will need to make it through to April next year to the British Championships, and at present it is looking unlikely.
In an ideal world an even playing field should be available to all, and Lisa Mason isn’t even asking for that as she will continue to work while others train full time. What she will be able to do should she reach her funding target is carry on setting an example for gymnasts, girls, and women all over that you are never too old, that hard work, tenacity, determination, dedication and commitment bring results, and that the ‘Women’s’, and ‘Artistic’ parts of WAG haven’t quite died out yet.
If you would like to help Lisa with her training costs she has a gofundme page here:
You can follow Lisa on Instagram @lisamasongymnast , and on Twitter @lisamasongym
There is a great video of Lisa talking about her gymnastics here: http://characteruncovered.co.uk/character/lisa-uncovered/