Olympic years usually coincide with peaks when it comes to gymnastics participation in this country, but on the eve of the Tokyo Games, fears are growing that it will be remembered for a trend reversal.
Thanks to the exploits of Beth Tweddle, Louis Smith and Max Whitlock in London 2012, British Gymnastics reported a 100,000 increase in recreational gymnastics over the next four years, and a 13 percent increase around Rio brought the total number to 1.1 million active members. gymnasts.
For a then inspired generation, now read A Lost Generation. Those were the far-reaching effects of the Covid pandemic on the grassroots competitors.
British gymnastics hopes for Olympic boost after goal during pandemic
With club coaches across the country telling stories of children of all ages and abilities being lost, it feels like a new set of Olympic role models in Joe Fraser, the Gadirova twins, Jennifer and Jessica, Alice Kinsella and Giarnni Regini-Moran can not in life rooms come fast enough.
Chloe Carey, head of artistic women at Harrogate Gymnastics, has experienced both ends of the spectrum. ‘We only opened in 2009 and in 2012 we have experienced tremendous growth. We had between 600 and 700 children, and that jumped to 1200 that summer. The numbers go up with every Olympics, but we also see increases as the sport reaches the mainstream media.’
Thanks to a miserable 15 months of three shutdowns and restrictions on access to their facilities, Harrogate has returned to pre-2012 levels.
“From the recreational side, we’ve lost hundreds, especially the young ones who don’t remember what it was like when they came and so they’re out of the habit,” Carey says.
The success of stars like Max Whitlock in Rio in 2016 led to an increase in the number of participants
“Covid has taken all the fun out of what we do. When we teach online classes, in order to be physically safe for the gymnasts, you must have a period in the session that focuses on conditioning. The body needs the core strength to perform skills, but the little ones come because they love throwing themselves around, having fun, doing some cartwheels, not doing that.
“And it was a similar story, even for some of the older ones. Let’s face it, gymnastics for them is the bars, the vault, the beam. Take all that out, and just do the strength and flexibility stuff, and it’s just not the same.
“For the first month, training at home in their bedroom or front yard had its novelty and they enjoyed it. But by the third lockdown they had had enough and then we lost most of our senior gymnasts from the artistic women to other disciplines.”
One of the core principles of gymnastics is continuity. Simply put, too much has changed. Too much disturbance.
Nicky Nicol, who runs Twist & Flip Academy in Grimsby, says switching to Zoom classes was a similar turn-off for her gymnasts. But the reasons for leaving the club were many and in some cases harrowing. “After we came back from lockdown, some of the kids had separation anxiety, others had lost confidence and it was heartbreaking to watch,” she says.
“As a club we have managed to raise some money for mental well-being. That was amazing. We had 15 gymnasts to start with and around 30 the second time, from the age of three.
Pictured above: Chloey Carey, Women’s Artistic Director at Harrogate Gymnastics
“For the younger gymnasts it was a huge challenge to spend so much time at home and then have to come to a session. There were tears and tantrums when they had to leave their moms and dads at the door, and it was really hard to get around that.”
The two clubs are part of a wider network that shares ideas about coaching. Since March last year, they have been creative in trying to work within the ever-changing government guidelines: Harrogate made national news in 2020 when they developed their own outdoor gym a few hundred yards from their building; both tried to keep the social aspect alive with online quizzes, baking challenges and social catch-up.
For more capable gymnasts, the competition season will soon be upon us. However, expectations for everyone are diluted by so much free time. Even the very best National swim against the current to get to the level of two years ago, skills are so easily lost if not drilled weekly. Growth spurts increase the level of the challenge. Everything can feel strange after a period of inactivity and certain movements therefore need to be retrained. The clock is not their friend.
British Gymnastics has relaxed some of their competition criteria – removing age restrictions and providing multiple levels of difficulty – to give those wishing to compete regionally or nationally the chance to find a suitable level.
“It’s going to take us a lot of time to rebuild these gymnasts,” said Nicol, revealing that her club will not be sending any gymnasts forward this time. “I don’t feel like I can throw them into a game and find that they’re not quite ready yet. That would be soul-destroying for some of them.’
Harrogate, who has several girls who missed the chance to represent Yorkshire last year, is enough. “From our point of view, it looks like they’re trying to keep kids in the sport and trying to keep them in the sport a lot longer,” Carey says.
“It certainly seems like there’s a lot more for kids who could be stuck because with what happened during Covid it could just be that they were stuck on the same level forever.”
A new generation of gymnastics is needed to grow the sport after the summer
With the lifting of the restrictions, things are moving again. Harrogate has adopted a local memorial hall as a second location to increase their capacity.
But it may not be possible to get everyone back until September due to a 15 month hiatus in BG’s coaching. Entry level (one) online courses resumed online only earlier this month.
Dates for higher qualifications are yet to be released and sessions must be taught by those at level two or above.
No longer rejecting people will undoubtedly be a fresh start for two coaches whose passion for the sport continues unabated. “For me, if I see a kid who isn’t able to do a forward roll, and then does one, it just makes me want to cry,” Nicol says.
‘Our motto throughout the lockdown was ‘ride the waves’. We’ve sailed all the waves they could throw at us, and we’re almost there now.’