Arise King Louis! After bronze in Beijing, Smith leads the charge for gold in London
01:56 GMT, 28 July 2012
Wearing a sharp grey suit and open-necked white shirt, Louis Smith looks the epitome of cool as he stands in front of a crowd of diners at his farewell meal before the Olympics. The hair is styled, the goatee trimmed, the stance poised to perfection.
Then the compere asks a question Smith has probably heard 2,012 times before: how does he feel ahead of the Games It elicits a candid answer.
‘To be honest, I’m c***ping myself,’ he replies. ‘It will be emotional.’ Smith then nods to fellow gymnast Luke Folwell, a multiple Commonwealth medallist, who, minutes earlier, announced his retirement from the sport. ‘I’m a little bit jealous of Luke.’
No horsing around: Louis Smith will be going for gymnastics gold in London
‘I’d rather be in your position, mate,’ Folwell quips, fast as a gymnast’s dismount. It is a moment of levity in the main hall of Wood Green Animal Shelter, a 10-minute drive from the Huntingdon gymnasium that has made Smith a contender for the gold medal in the pommel horse event.
Qualification for his individual event and the artistic gymnastics team competition, of which he is part, starts on Saturday. London 2012 is the culmination of more than 19 years’ hard work and has been the refrain since we picked Smith to be one of our Magnificent Seven athletes seven summers ago.
Back then, he was a hyperactive 16-year-old boy. When we visit him now, in both the council-estate house where he grew up and the chalet bungalow he is building, he is a charismatic 23-year-old man on the cusp of something special: Britain’s first Olympic gymnastics champion. Little wonder he feels occasional strain.
‘Beijing was just fun,’ Smith says of the event that thrust him into the public eye as the first British gymnast to win an individual medal for 100 years when he won bronze for the pommel horse. ‘I knew I could get a medal, but going there not having the pressure of anyone else thinking I could was fun. I could do what I wanted. After the Olympics, things were completely different. I was doing media all the time. As soon as Beijing was finished, everyone was talking about gold in London. The last two years it’s just been mad.’
It is the afternoon before the
evening meal and Smith sits on a sofa in his mother’s front room,
wearing recently acquired Team GB gear, sipping a cup of tea. Two
six-year-old sibling dogs, Simba and Nala, named by Smith after the Lion
King protagonists, yap away noisily, ignoring mum Elaine’s pleas for
silence. Pictures of him and his elder brother Leon line the walls.
is the modest semi-detached home in the village Eye on the edge of
Peterborough where, as a toddler with the hyperactive disorder ADHD,
Smith would run around causing his mum no end of worry. She was a single
parent with little money. ‘We’re not extravagant people,’ Elaine, a
47-year-old hairdresser, says. ‘I don’t go out, don’t smoke, don’t
drink. It just went on the children. Louis had broken his arm, his wrist
and his elbow before he was three. He was very active, always jumping
Happy families: Louis Smith with his mother Elaine as he prepares for the Olympics
‘So it was either him being in the house, doing your head in, or take him somewhere he enjoys and he’s taking his energy out.’
Smith tried swimming, athletics, football, golf, basketball and roller-skating before sticking to gymnastics.
‘It got to horse riding where he’d have a lesson and come say, “Mum I don’t want to go any more because my bum is really sore”,’ Elaine laughs. Earlier, she had brought out a picture of said bottom — naked in the pages of Cosmopolitan. For charity, of course. It is one of the many ways her son has been on display to the public this summer.
He is one of Team GB’s chosen few to appear on huge billboards around London.
features as much for his personality as his talent, and listening to
his mother enthuse it is easy to work out where he got his exhibitionist
nature. To his Jamaican father, Smith owes a natural sporting ability
and surname, but not much else. Claude Smith separated from Elaine Petch
20 years ago, leaving the child-raising to her. He is now a bus driver
Project: Smith is building a new house near Peterborough for after the London Olympics
‘We met at a soul club aged 17 — he had come over four years earlier,’ Elaine says. ‘We split up when Louis was about three and a half. I’m not going to slag him off. It didn’t work out. Just because he didn’t help out all the time, doesn’t matter.
‘He rings Louis and visited on Christmas Day and Fathers’ Day for a few hours. He is coming down to watch Louis in the Olympics.
‘I’ve not dated once in 20 years, I didn’t want to answer to anyone and didn’t want anyone coming in to boss the boys’ lives. They’re protective over me.’
Would Smith say he has a good relationship with his dad ‘I’ve got a relationship with him, I wouldn’t say it’s great. It’s nice to keep in contact.’
Did Paul Hall, his long-term coach,
provide that role growing up ‘I think gym itself has been like a father
figure because it teaches you so many things: discipline, respect,’
What about Claude’s presence at the
North Greenwich Arena ‘It’s different for my mum going and watching,
and my dad going and watching. They’re sat in different positions.
D-Day: Smith practices on the pommel horse during a training session at the O2 Arena
‘My mum’s sacrificed a lot over the years for me to be where I am. My dad’s had a very outside view. He sees news clippings every now and again, and people comment at his work saying, “I saw your son in the newspaper.” So he’s in a very proud position, but my mum’s taken the journey with me.’
That Jamaican heritage does form a major part of Smith’s life, though. He loves reggae music and has a large collection, from Bob Marley to Beenie Man, on his iPhone. His favourite meal is chicken, rice and peas cooked Jamaican jerk-style, a recipe Claude taught Elaine.
Practical jokes are a common occurrence when Smith is around, a prime example being the time he convinced his British team-mates to scare their coach during a stay at the Lilleshall training complex.
‘We pretended to be ghosts,’ he smiles. ‘We all put white sheets over our heads and I got everyone to stand in the field.
‘I went to the coach’s window and
knocked. He looked out and saw all these figures. I reckon we would have
got away with it if I hadn’t laughed.’
then sniggers his way through a recent tale about filling team-mate
Daniel Purvis’s bag with gym chalk, leaving the Liverpudlian somewhat
bemused. ‘I could go on for ever,’ he adds.
Stepping stone: Smith won bronze in Beijing but is tipped for gold in London
Those incidents have become less frequent as Smith has got older — ‘I think about consequences more,’ he says — and a sign of increased maturity can be seen in his decision to use sponsorship money to build a house to live in post-Olympics.
It is a 10-minute drive from both his mother’s place and the flat in which he lives.
Only the brickwork of the ground floor is complete but once finished, it will be a three-bedroomed chalet bungalow.
He describes the motivation: ‘There’s nothing like being at home. I love having my own space.
‘Providing the Olympics goes well, I can’t wait to come back here, clear out my suitcase, throw my jacket on the floor and then just go like this on the sofa (he flops, arms spread). As soon as I went onto podium-level Lottery funding, I moved out.’
His brother has been the spur for much of Smith’s success. His mother tells how, as infants, Leon would play a tune on a keyboard and Louis would be able repeat it instantly on his toy guitar — an indicator of excellent perception, ideal for pommel.
Also, Smith concedes: ‘He was just always better than me at stuff. I think that’s where my competitiveness came from.’
Penny for your thoughts: Louis Smith
His chances of gold are not mere hype. He has conceived the most difficult 50-second pommel horse routine in the world, which if performed cleanly, should prove unbeatable.
At the British Championships last month, Smith nailed it to record a personal best of 16.375 — one of the highest scores ever for pommel. Was there ever a moment when he doubted himself Not a bit.
He says: ‘I’ve known for ages that I could be a brilliant gymnast. I went to my first international competition when I was 12, in Pennsylvania. Aged 14, I went to the European Junior Championships and won gold; at 16, I won the Commonwealth Games. So there was never a moment when I thought, “Ugh, is this the right decision”’
Besides: ‘After the Olympics, I can do what I want.’
And what might that entail ‘If it goes well, you could see me doing something pretty cool. Once I’ve finished competing, I’m hitting the gym, gonna rip up. My body at the moment is built for gymnastics, I want it for photos.’
Coach Hall believes Smith will have done one million rotations of the pommel by the time London is done. Smith thinks before saying: ‘Hopefully, the financial side will work out and I’ll have earned a pound for every one. Sport is short-lived if you’re an athlete. The work starts now to help set myself up. There’s no point finishing my gymnastics career and then just twiddling my thumbs.’
A millionaire gymnast would certainly be some feat.