Trying hard to land on my feet

Milford Mercury: GREAT GROUP: With the gymnasts before training. PICTURE: Bill Carne. GREAT GROUP: With the gymnasts before training. PICTURE: Bill Carne.

STRENGTH, grace, and perfect execution.

Following some hasty  research, these were the three  components I identified as imperative for a successful gymnast.

As someone whose fitness levels have always tended to exceed technical ability – the first component held little fear. The latter two however, contained words I rarely associate with.

Therefore, expectations were low when I turned up at Thornton for my sixth Commonwealth Games challenge at Milford Haven Gymnastics Club. This represented my first experience of the activity for 14 years, when I reluctantly performed a  routine as part of my GCSE Physical Education exam.

“We run sessions here every day of the week and then compete on weekends,” said coach Andy Grey, whose name is synonymous with gymnastics in Wales.

“The club has around 250 members – but local schools, adults, and disability groups also use the facility so more than 300 people come through the door each week.”

He added that of those 250 members, about 40 compete for the club, while others train for fun and enjoyment.

And the club can boast a string of success stories in recent times, none more so than earlier this year when Vicky Haworth, Felicity Warlow and Katy Blockwell claimed silver as a trio when representing Wales at the Celtic Games in Glasgow.

However, Andy, who has been involved in the sport for more than 30 years, admitted that maintaining a club like Milford Haven often requires volunteers to go beyond the call of duty.

“Gymnastics is one of those sports where you are only as good as the support you get,” he said.

“Our youngsters will train for 12-15 hours each week, which puts big demands on them and their parents.

“So while we rely on the children to keep the club going, we also rely on their family members and volunteers.”

In that respect, the club is blessed. At the morning session I attended, a host of parents were on hand to offer help and support.

Also in attendance were Pam McGillivray and daughter Sarah, renowned for their sterling work at the club in their respective roles as treasurer and coach.

And last but not least, was Bulgarian Matei Todorov, a former UK coach who regularly travels around the country to offer a helping hand to clubs like Milford Haven.

Unfortunately, his presence ensured I wasn’t going to get off lightly as I gingerly approached the vast equipment in the room.

And during the warm up, it wouldn’t have taken a rocket scientist to have spotted the odd one out, as youngsters buzzed around me with boundless energy.

Which led me to ask Matei to confirm my theory that gymnastics was very much a young person’s game.

“When a child is developing there are specific windows of opportunity as far as gymnastics is concerned,” he said.

“Female levels of flexibility often peak when a girl is aged between 7-11, while their spatial awareness peaks when they are between 11 and 12.

“Boys hit their peaks slightly later. But either way, the sport is highly demanding on the body and it’s difficult to maintain the intensity of training when you are older - which is why competitors in the Olympic Games tend to be so young.”

I could have done with some exuberance of youth as I performed a series of warm up jumps on one of the large mats. After barely a dozen, I felt like I was jumping on quick sand.
Matei and Andy then put me through a series of exercises as I progressed towards my first  challenge - performing a back flip (while attached to a harness in case of catastrophe).

Ironically, armed with the excellent pointers from Matei and Andy, my first few attempts were successfully negotiated. But when fatigue set in, there were lapses in concentration and the odd botched landing, prompting Matei to remind me it was essential to drive my legs back over my head.

From there it was onto the vault, and again, the coaches’ expertise soon turned me from a clueless novice into a ‘gymnast’ able to perform the skill to an acceptable level – even if my take off and landing technique did fall narrowly short of perfect.

I did however manage to avoid any serious form of tumble – whilst being fully aware of Bill Carne waiting expectantly with his camera nearby.

And while I wasn’t about to get carried away and start mapping out a belated Olympic career, my enjoyment prompted me to ask Andy if a regular football or rugby player could really combine gymnastics with other training?

Andy, a former scrum half at Pontypool RFC, is in a better position than most to answer.

“It was only when I got to college I realised the benefits of gymnastics,” he said.

“It not only helps your strength and fitness but also improves your balance and spatial awareness.

“Shane Williams was a great gymnast, and it was easy to see how agile he was when he played. Also, he was rarely injured in his career, so it really can set you up for other sports."

However, this benefit of hindsight was now of little help to me as I moved onto some ‘acro’ gymnastics, which Andy described as a concept that required “teamwork and an incredible level of trust.”

He wasn’t wrong. One unfortunate, yet  brave volunteer was brought over to stand on my shoulders while I was crouched down in a kneeling position. When Andy and Matei instructed me to stand up straight, with the youngster still perched on my shoulders, my heart skipped a beat.

With sweat pouring from my brow, a few seconds seemed like an eternity, before the youngster nonchalantly hopped down onto the mat and back to her training session.

Those nervy moments were soon put into perspective as I watched the youngsters perform a series of ‘pyramids’, requiring extortionate amounts of balance and control, and deceptive levels of strength.

And for those wondering how much commitment goes into such excellence, Andy told me that members, who arrived at 9.30am, will leave at 5pm following a break for lunch - a standard training day during the holidays.

And such levels of dedication are not necessarily fuelled by rich rewards. Gymnasts, coaches, and volunteers are there because they love their involvement, they love the sport, and they love the enjoyment it brings. Sessions take place with smiles on faces and no hint of resentment.

“This club caught my eye at a National Championships event,” said Matei.

“They are a great club and I love it here. Gymnastics in Pembrokeshire is in safe hands with clubs like these.”

I could not have concluded it better myself.

Bill Carne's verdict:

Fraser was quieter than usual when setting off for his latest challenge and he admitted en route to Thornton, the home of Milford Haven Gymnastics Club, that he wasn’t a whizz at gymnastics in school but I assured him he would be well looked after by Andy Grey.

Andy is a tower of strength at the club was as ‘Coach of the Year’ at the BBC awards in Cardiff a few years ago.

He met us with Matei Todorov, a Bulgarian who was British coach for 23 years, and who was charged with teaching Fraser who to exectute a somersault and vault properly.

But before that Fraser had to warm up with the young gymnasts under the guidance of Andy and Sarah McGillivray, who like Andy forms the backbone of the club, alongside her mum Pam as Hon Secretary.

Then it was onto a mat where Fraser learnt how to throw himself backwards for a somersault before being thrown up in a harness expertly held by Matei, and Andy was also close at hand in case of a mistake.

The look on Fraser’s face as he completed his first back somersault was a picture -  but then there were inevitably errors as he tired. But overall Matei said it was a good start – and then it was on to a box for some vaulting, which Fraser accomplished with success.

Then came the acrobatics component as Fraser lifted a young gymnast - and the look of trepidation on his face as she finally stood on his shoulders was a moment to treasure!

It was easy to see how much pleasure the kids had as well as becoming very good gymnasts. Andy, Matei and Sarah are brilliant with them and their expectations rub off on those they coach.

Fraser was no exception because on the way home he was thrilled by what he had achieved in a short space of time and surely that quality of coaching is what makes local sport so good – and Milford Haven Gymnastics Club certainly epitomises that!

Tune into the Radio Pembrokeshire Friday Night Sport Show this week, between 6-8pm, to hear Bill Carne speak to Fraser, Andy and Matei  about the sport of gymnastics.

For more on gymnastics in Pembrokeshire, visit the Sport Pembrokeshire Facebook page or www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/sport.

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