Beth Tweddle: After Beijing, I hated myself and I hated the Olympics
Beth Tweddle recalls all too vividly
the moment her crushing disappointment at missing out on an Olympic
medal in Beijing hit her hardest.
As the members of the British team
boarded their flight home, the medal winners turned left to enjoy the
privileges of business class.But Tweddle, the standard bearer of British
gymnastics, had to turn right.
'I was stuck at the rear of the plane
near the toilets,' she recalls. 'I took a step back on my dismount from
the parallel bars in the Olympic final and that one, small error turned
a bronze medal into fourth place.'
Honorary scouser: Beth Tweddle is targeting gold in London
At Heathrow, the distinction between success and failure was rubbed in again.
The medallists had pink name tags for their baggage to speed up the recovery process at the carousel.
Tweddle remembers standing forlornly waiting for her bags to appear, the medallists long gone.
'A huge crowd of well-wishers greeted the team at Heathrow and again at Manchester but all I wanted to do was disappear back to my flat in Liverpool,' she says. 'The next day I went with my flatmate to the travel agents and asked what was the first flight out of the country. It turned out to be Kavos. But even on a Greek island people kept asking me about the Games.
'It was all a horrible experience. I hated myself, I hated the Olympics and I hated gymnastics. There was no way I was going to carry on in the sport. But the day I returned home I texted my coach and asked when did she want me in for training. It had taken that week for me to realise I couldn't walk away.'
It proved to be a wise decision.
Up for it: Beth Tweddle in action at the World Championships in Tokyo
Tweddle, now 26, went on to add world titles in 2009 and 2010 to the first world crown she claimed in 2006, as well as a host of European golds.
And she can now expect to compete in the bars and the floor exercise at London's O2 Arena as a serious Olympic medal contender in both disciplines this summer.
Adversity is something the 'honorary scouser', as she calls herself, has come to deal with over the years, especially early on when British gymnastics was considered not much more than a joke by the Eastern Europeans.
'Back then, when I first started competing in international events as a teenager, you'd have to fight to get a chance to practise on the bars,' she recalls.
'You'd get a Russian girl swinging away and then announcing to a team-mate that she was about to dismount, which was the cue for the next Russian to jump on. I'd be standing there not getting a look-in.
'Even when I did get on someone, normally from Eastern Europe, would leap on to the lower bar and start swinging round and round. Someone would have to give way or there would have been a nasty accident. It would always be me.
Disappointment: Beth Tweddle in action during the Beijing Olympics
'On the beam I'd begin a routine on one end only to see a Russian jump on the other end, start her routine and edge closer and closer towards me. Again, I would jump off without completing my routine. One day my long-time coach, Amanda Reddin, told me never to give way again. The next time it happened, the Russian had to dismount.'
Tweddle stumbled into the sport because her parents found her 'too energetic'.
She was born in South Africa but the family moved to England when she was just one.
In gymnastics she discovered a pastime she adored but she had no role models to inspire her to make it a full-time sport.
Double gold: Beth Tweddle poses with her European Championship medals
'Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci and the others were way before my time,' she says. 'The transition from enjoyable past-time to competitive sport just kind of happened. There were no successful British gymnasts to emulate.' It is little wonder that the small girl felt out of her depth when she began to feature in events in Germany, France and other European venues.
'I was overawed. I kept saying to my coach: “I don't deserve to be here”.'
Her low self-esteem would continue for a number of years.But in 2002 she clinched a European bronze, the first medal ever won by a British gymnast at the European Championships.
'It was a massive moment for me and for British gymnastics, a real breakthrough,' she admits. 'But I still didn't think I deserved to be there. And I certainly didn't believe that I could kick on and achieve better results.'
Even though she claimed two silvers in the 2004 Europeans and a bronze at the 2005 worlds, Tweddle had decided, at the ripe old age of 20, that the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne would be her swansong.
'It would be another two years to the Olympics, my body hurt and even at 20 I was on the old side to be a top level gymnast,' she explains.
'I just didn't think I could become a world, let alone a European champion. I thought I was as good as I could get.'
She laughs at herself and shakes her head. 'I guess I was wrong.'
An ankle sprained the day before Commonwealth competition ruled her out of the Games, but there was a 'silver lining', as she puts it.
'There was no way I was going to bow out on that note so I then resolved to have a go at the Beijing Olympics and the 2009 world championships, partly because they would be staged in London, and then stop. This time I was adamant.'
The fourth place in Beijing made Tweddle re-evaluate again. 'I told the BBC that I wouldn't be around in 2012 but the day after returning from Kavos I was back in the gym. A package had arrived in the post in my absence. Inside I found a pink Olympic baggage tag and a message from Tim Brabants, the gold medal canoeist, who told me I deserved a medal, or at least this tag.It was a lovely touch and I knew I couldn't walk away.'
She laughs again and shrugs her shoulders by way of explanation.
Team-mates: The Great Britain team at the European Championships, including Beth Tweddle (second left)
'I guess I'm just stubborn. I hate giving up.'
The 2009 world championships proved to be a massive fillip for her. In front of a partisan home crowd inside the O2 she won gold in the floor exercise.
'It was the most amazing experience of my life to have such a huge and wonderful support base behind me,' she recalls. 'It's what has kept me going over the past two years, knowing that it will be bigger and better at the Olympics.'
During the past four years British gymnastics has been transformed, with the likes of Louis Smith winning an Olympic bronze in 2008 on the pommel horse, and Dan Keatings an all-round world silver.
At the 2010 Commonwealths the second rung of English gymnasts swept the board.
At last there is more to British gymnastics that just Beth Tweddle.
'That really helps me,' she admits. 'Before, when the management announced the team's aim was one medal I knew that, in reality, it was Beth's aim. Now I know it's spread around the team. They've seen what I've done and come to realise that if I can do it, so can they. We now have serious medal contenders in a number of events.'
Taking the weight: Louis Smith is an Olympic medallist
This is quite a transformation for a sport whose British participation was almost ridiculed a decade ago.
'Back then nobody took any notice of the Brits when they trained. Now it's a case of “The Brits are here. We'd better watch what they do.” It's very satisfying to see.'
So what of this summer Tweddle remains understandably cautious, pointing out that she is yet to qualify.
'We have the European championships in Brussels in May, then a couple of trial competitions and finally the British championships in Liverpool in June. After all that we receive letters telling us if we've been selected for the Olympics.
'I've got friends wanting to buy me 2012 badges and gear but I don't want to know until I have that letter.'
The thought of Tweddle not being selected for London is like Ben Ainslie failing to make the sailing team, but too much has happened in the past and too much could still happen.
'Listen, I've fallen flat on my face from the bars hundreds of times,' says Tweddle. 'I've fractured my cheekbones and both feet, I've torn biceps tendons, I've suffered from a huge list of injuries. I'll start thinking about the Games when that letter's in my hand.'
Yet still she cannot resist one piece of Olympic information. 'I have a good bars routine I know so well that you could wake me up at three in the morning and I'd do it without a flaw.
'But it won't win me an Olympic medal and I'd regret trying it for the rest of my life. To win a medal means an element of risk. It could boil down to a fraction of a second, but that's what I'll have to do. It could end with the one thing missing in my competitive life – an Olympic medal. Or it could all go wrong. But I'm not going to die wondering.'
And if she does claim a medal, even a bronze one, it will be some achievement for the girl who was bullied by the Eastern Europeans – but came back to beat them all.