Britain Is Making The Jump To Gymnastics' Big-time

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Not so long ago, the best British gymnasts could hope for was a spot at the world championships or Olympics.

Sending a full team to the Olympics? Not likely. Winning a medal? No way.

Oh, how things have changed.

Britain arrives at this week's world championships as an emerging powerhouse in gymnastics, with realistic chances for multiple medals by both the men and women. In just the last three years, British gymnasts have won an Olympic medal for the first time in nearly a century, claimed their first world title and won their first all-around medal at a major competition.

With the London Olympics only three years away _ at the same O2 Arena where worlds are taking place _ the resurgence couldn't come at a better time.

"Now it's common practice to talk about medals," said Paul Hall, who coaches Olympic bronze medalist Louis Smith and European runner-up Daniel Keatings. "We're chasing these finals, we're going for this, we're trying to qualify a team for 2012. They're real goals, realistic goals. And everybody believes that we can do this."

The world championships begin Tuesday with men's qualifying; the women's competition starts Wednesday.

British Gymnastics found itself at something of a crossroads after the 2003 world championships. While Beth Tweddle was winning bronze on uneven bars, the first world medal ever by a British woman and only the third for any British gymnast, the men struggled mightily. They finished 23rd in qualifying, lower even than Latvia and Cuba _ not exactly gymnastics dynasties _ and no one made the all-around or any event finals.

Shortly after, the men's program lost its funding.

"When you look back in hindsight, you might not have planned it that way, but it's beneficial in the way it's sort of come together," said Brian Stocks, CEO of British Gymnastics.

Like many countries, Britain had struggled to find a system that suited its culture and athletes. The Eastern Bloc model of having all gymnasts train full time at the same site (or relying solely on foreign coaches) didn't work. Neither did letting gymnasts train at their home clubs and having them come together just a few weeks before major competitions.

The key turned out to be a combination.

Long-term national plans and goals were established, and foreign coaches, who often had more expertise and success, worked as partners and mentors with the local British coaches. Not only was there more cohesiveness to the national teams, but a coaching pipeline was established that will carry Britain through 2012 _ and beyond.

And once London was awarded the 2012 Games, the progress accelerated. British Gymnastics identified talented youngsters who could be a factor in London, and the additional funding that began pouring in helped further their development.

The results are clear.

Tweddle's title on uneven bars at the 2006 world championships was a first for a British gymnast. The following year, the British women had their best finish at worlds or the Olympics, seventh place.

Not to be outdone, the British men went on their own heavy metal binge. Smith's bronze on pommel horse at the Beijing Games was Britain's first Olympic medal in gymnastics since 1912 and first by an individual since 1908. It was considered such a triumph he got the kind of star treatment usually reserved for soccer players. A huge crowd greeted his plane when he arrived home from Beijing, and he made the rounds of talk and awards shows.

He even met the queen. And, yes, she knew who he was.

"I thought she was going to be hard to talk to and approach. She was just like an old grandma; she was sweet," Smith said. "She knew I was a gymnast and she asked if I could do a little something. But I said I was in my suit and I don't want to end up ripping it."

There's more to come, too.

The junior men's team won the European title last year, another first, ith Keatings and Daniel Purvis finishing 1-2 in the all-around. This year, Keatings won the silver medal at the senior Europeans, and is considered a contender at the worlds.

"It's taken awhile, obviously," said Tweddle, who won titles on both floor exercise and uneven bars at this year's Europeans. "Once I started getting results, the boys started looking across and saying, 'Well, if she can do it, then why can't I?' So at least now on both sides, they've got role models."

Expectations, too.

Now that British gymnasts have had an extended run of success, the public seems to have forgotten those dark days when just qualifying for a final was a stretch. Smith can hardly go anywhere these days without people asking if he'll be disappointed if he doesn't win gold on pommel horse, given that the gold and silver medalists from Beijing not competing.

"After being at the Olympic Games, everyone kind of thinks this is going to be a walk in the park, where we all know it's not the case," he said. "But (the pressure) is going to be there whether I like it or not, so I've got to deal with it."

Besides, it's a lot more fun dealing with pressure than disappointment or, worse, neglect. Especially with those home Olympics getting closer every day.

"It's perfect timing," Hall said. "It's important for us to be moving in the right direction, and everyone feels we are."

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