Why It’s Not Quite All About Rio


From the very beginning to the very top, a friend’s little girl just starting out in development, British Level 2 Champion Ondine Achampong, British Senior AA Champion Amy Tinkler


Three gymnastics related have events got me thinking this week. The first being eight of the British Senior squad heading off to Rio for a training camp, the second being the first national squad of the year for the development girls (2004 – 2006 born gymnasts), and the third was my friend’s little girl who is about to turn five, and taking her very first steps into what may turn into elite gymnastics, as she started her new class in development squad having been selected from her recreational group.

So much this year will be about Rio, soon enough the competition season will start. We’ll see some great performances, some typical beginning of season performances, upgrades, new routines, who is fit, who is battling to overcome injury. The momentum will begin to gather from early March when we’ll see Amy Tinkler head to the American Cup, then Claudia Fragapane and Kelly Simm to the Glasgow World Cup, then the British Team Championships, then the English Championships, then Ellie Downie will travel to the Stuttgart World Cup. There are also the Doha and Cottbus Cups as yet to be announced, and that’s just March. There will be the British Championships, more world cup events, The Olympic Test Event, European Championships, numerous international friendlies, squads and internal trials. Then before we know it we will find ourselves in summer, and at some point after the selection period ends on the 3rd of July, and before they move to the Olympic village on the 31st, the Olympic team will be named.

There are seventeen gymnasts on the British Senior squad, five will get to compete in Rio. There are some that will not be expecting to make the team, perhaps looking to make more of an impact in the next quad, but for some after giving everything only to miss out, there will be disappointment of a level that can only be understood by those that have been there. Just before it becomes all about Rio, I was reminded this week that just because they may not become one of the five, what it takes to be one of seventeen has already made them exceptional.

So back to the beginning, and my friend’s little girl starting out. I’ll be using rough figures here, but hopefully they will get the point across.

A development class will typically have 15 little gymnasts from each age group, to get to that point a little girl has already been selected from the huge amount of recreational classes available. Perhaps she is naturally fast, strong, flexible, fearless, or fast twitch. Maybe she has an innate determination, an inner steel, has progressed quickly, or takes instruction well. Something has caught the attention of her coaches, and she has been selected to take the first step on from recreational gymnastics.

Looking at just the Southern Region, there are nearly 40 clubs registered, as a conservative estimate, lets imagine half offer a development program with the intention of progressing to elite. A possible 300 little development gymnasts, across the ten English regions that becomes 3,000 before you even factor in all of the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish classes, which would add say another one and a half thousand. So as an estimate, lets say there are 4,500 gymnasts per age group in development squads right now, and of those 4,500, one day between two and five of them from each age group  will make senior national squad.

Of the 17 current senior squad gymnasts, there are 1 x 1992, 1 x 1995, 2 x 1996, 5 x 1997, 3 x 1999, and 5x 2000 born gymnasts.

To get from one of about 4,500 to one of five in your age group starts early. Approximately half of those selected will make it through to club squad training, then over the two years before we first see the youngest elites compete at level 5 regional championships, the numbers drop dramatically, just 47 for the Southern region in 2015, a figure replicated nationwide. For various reasons, many will have dropped back to recreational gymnastics, many will be on the club grade path, and many will have left gymnastics to pursue other interests. There are a lot of hours from a very early age, I had my pre level 5 gymnasts in four days a week, then rising to five days from around May/June of level 5 year. Fifteen to eighteen hours a week is more than some young gymnasts wish to train, more than some parents wish their children to train, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. As the hours only increase from there, only the keenest, most dedicated and talented gymnasts will stay on the elite path. This is a natural result of the commitment required, gymnastics is for everyone, there are many levels and disciplines to be enjoyed, elite gymnastics however is for the very few.

As well as some dropping out, some will come in, perhaps from smaller clubs, or talented later starters pulled from recreational classes. I had one little one that came later to rec classes, so no development squad, and I think was selected  quickly into the in the club Septemberish time of pre level 5.  She started with me in March of the level five year, and took four in age regional medals in the September, just a year after beginning gymnastics. Contrarily there will be slower starters looking as though they will do well but not necessarily climb right to the top straight away. For those that struggle with compulsories it is sometimes better to follow the Challenge Cup route, some of these gymnasts can then come through to excel as older gymnasts. Two such gymnasts Ruby Harrold and Kelly Simm now have World Championship medals.

The first time we see our young elites nationally is the year they turn nine, first for Compulsory 4, then later in the year Voluntary 4. By this time the numbers have whittled  down further, from that estimated start figure of 4,500 development girls, to in 2015, just 49 gymnasts across Great Britain able to achieve the required 47.00 AA to be eligible for national finals (although in regions where there weren’t enough gymnasts achieving the 47.00 to form a team, lower scoring gymnasts were allowed to compete) . For level three there were 48 eligible gymnasts, with the 46.00 required score, then 42 contested the level 2 title. From these gymnasts the national development squad is chosen, for 2016 there are up to eight in each age group, just eight from those 4,500.

There is a big drop off at the end of age group levels and into Espoirs, it is the time training hours often rise from six sessions a week to double sessions on some days requiring time out of school. It is also when many young gymnasts will have to deal with puberty, injuries can start to creep in, and interests outside gymnastics will draw many away from the sport.  Places on national squad, and international assignments are for the very few, it is a time to choose for many, as putting in so many hours, and sacrificing everything else to be the middle of the pack will not appeal to some. Thankfully many will stay, and as I mentioned earlier will reach their potential later, and excel as older gymnasts.

At the 2015 British Espoir Championships, 36 competed averaging 18 per age group (gymnasts spend two years in the Espoir category), the juniors are an even smaller group with 27 over two years. From this four year age range around fifteen gymnasts will be members of the junior national squad.  The seniors unsurprisingly are the smallest group of all, with 25 gymnasts spanning a nineteen year age range competing at the 2015 British Championships.

What I have gone the long way round in trying to point out, is that just before it’s all about Rio, let’s celebrate that it is really about so much more. It’s about being one of thousands of tiny gymnasts enjoying a sport, it’s about making it through those thousands to be one of around just 45 to make it to the in age National Age Group system, one of 18 to make it to make it to Espoirs, then one of just a handful from each age group to make it into national squad. It’s about the hours, days, years of training, of the great days when you’re flying, and terrible days, the ones that really matter,  when you feel like nothing is working, but you work anyway. It’s about coming back from injuries that have taken others out the sport, and those days when you couldn’t even walk, and you see your competitors upgrading. It about every ripped hand, crunched ankle, bruise and graze from hitting the beam hard time and time again. It’s about the competitions when you have hit everything when it mattered, and the ones when you fell on everything that had gone so well all week.  Most of all it’s about loving gymnastics with everything it brings, so much so that you may not be one in five on the floor in Rio, but you are one of seventeen British Senior National Squad gymnasts, and to say you are exceptional does’t even come close.







2 thoughts on “Why It’s Not Quite All About Rio

  1. A really interesting article that puts into perspective the numbers of gymnasts enjoying their sport at every level whilst highlighting that very few can reach the heights of elite International performance. It is also well known that there is a high `drop out’ of gymnasts who could transfer their skills into other sports because of their inherent movement skills, body conditioning, aesthetic and kinaesthetic awareness. As a Coach in the sport of Springboard and Highboard Diving for many years I know that many of our top divers have a background in gymnastics that has aided them enormously, whilst making good use of their early years of training. How much better for gymnasts seeking elite performance to continue in another enjoyable yet challenging sport rather than retiring so young. Gymnastic Coaches generally are very protective of their protégés and, as a coach myself, I fully understand that but if a gymnast cannot move higher up the competitive chain/or is considering stopping, then why not point them in another direction? I would urge gymnastic coaches, parents and gymnasts to consider this option if faced with that situation rather than simply letting them fade away and being lost to competitive sport. Why not encourage them to continue with their healthy involvement in another sport – and who knows they could achieve more success in Diving!

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  2. Thank you for you comment Bill, I’m in complete agreement that ideally young athletes who already have demonstrated the commitment, work ethic, and will to succeed to progress to a reasonable level could well excel in other sports as they have already demonstrated many of the attributes required.
    I feel that if a young gymnast has decided to leave the sport, it would be so positive to have a system in place between different sports where the opportunity was there to try taster sessions, meet coaches, and potentially continue on the elite path in a different direction. I know of several gymnasts who have gone into diving, there are also pole vaulters, athletes, weightlifters, a French figure skater, and I recall a Romanian Olympian who became a cox. There could be so many more though were there to be more organised opportunity. As I wrote, so many leave gymnastics so early, and in terms of other sports would have years left before they need to peak.
    As far as suggesting a different sport to those not moving up the competitive chain, that is more complex situation. The recent world championship bronze medal winning team from Great Britain had two gymnasts selected who hadn’t followed the traditional elite path all the way from age nine to the end of our compulsory age group testing system, but have excelled as older gymnasts, and would have been a huge loss to our sport should they have been written off too early, although likely a huge gain to another.
    Of course were there more opportunity in schools from a very early age to try the vast range of sports available, many gymnasts would have visited facilities around their regions, and have an idea of what they might like to try should they choose to move on. I’m not saying we should adopt the old Soviet model of selecting children and allocating them to appropriate sports based on body type and physical abilities testing, but I would like to see through schools more in the way of offering children the chance to discover and participate in a wide range of sports, so that those with talent aren’t passed by through lack of opportunity, and from a coaches point of view potentially talented athletes are more easily discovered.


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