The Steve Cotton column: Elite but not elitist - the gym by the industrial estate is a shining example

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By Western Daily Press | Saturday, October 05, 2013, 05:00

Liz Kincaid's Academy of Gymnastics sits at the end of an industrial estate in Portishead. It may, at first, seem an unlikely setting for an elite sports academy but, in many ways, it is fitting.

The outside view of gymnastics and gymnasts – at the top level, at least – tends to be one of grace, of poise, of balance: the displays of athleticism and subtlety on the various apparatus at times seemingly having more in common with ballet than with sport as most people see it.

But the reality of what goes in to allow that to happen is much more aligned with grit, hard work and sacrifice. So maybe gymnastics is at home on the industrial estate.

Four of the five female gymnasts who represented Great Britain at last year's Olympics were from the City of Liverpool club. The other was Imogen Cairns from the Academy in Portishead. At the World Championships, currently taking place in Antwerp, half of the women's squad are again from the Liverpool club. One of two gymnasts from elsewhere is the double finalist, Ruby Harrold, again from the Academy in Portishead.

At the European Championships in Moscow earlier this year, Harrold – who reached the finals in the all-around, uneven bars and beam – became the first British woman ever to produce a top-ten performance in an all-around European Championship final.

In addition to the headline performers, Cairns – a triple Commonwealth champion as well as a double Olympian – and Harrold, the Academy continues produce an array of British Championship-standard gymnasts. On one weekend last year, Kincaid's club took six gymnasts to the England squad and a further four to the Great Britain squad – without Cairns and Harrold.

When the next Olympics take place, in Rio in 2016, Harrold is unlikely to be the only Portishead-based gymnast pressing for inclusion in the Great Britain squad. Not that Kincaid is driven by the Olympics. Around 400 gymnasts are coached at her academy – and not all of them will advance beyond recreational level, let alone to the greatest sporting stage in the world.

"A lot of coaches are driven by a lot of different things – but the Olympics doesn't drive me, nor does the World Championships," said Kincaid. "If you're only driven for one event – and it doesn't happen – then where's your passion gone? If, for example, Imogen hadn't made the Olympics, or Ruby hadn't made the World Championships, and I had only been driven by that, then it would be so disappointing that would I want to carry on in this sport? I do this sport because I love this sport, not because of the Olympics."

The sport of gymnastics seems alien to many – and not least because of the difficulty of even the most basic routines. While the top levels of any sport are beyond most people, those same 'most people' would be able to perform the most basic functions of, for example, football (kicking a ball), rugby (passing a ball off one hand or the other), sprinting (running in a straight line) or cricket (holding a bat and swinging). But to stand on a beam – or compete on the vault, uneven bars or floor – and perform even the most basic moves would be beyond the majority. And that is partly why Kincaid, despite being the only coach in the South West to have sent a gymnast to the Olympics for Great Britain (Cairns in both 2008 and 2012), does not obsess over producing Olympians.

"I know who's eligible for (Rio) 2016 – but the only conversation I've had about 2016 is with Ruby about whether she's planning to stay until 2016, and she is," said the coach.

"We just want all the children that come in here to be the best that they can be. For some children, that might just be that they achieve walking along a high beam at 1.20 metres at ten years old. For somebody else, that might be doing a double-back dismount off the beam, or qualifying, as Imogen did, for two Olympics. If every child can be the best that they can be, then we've done our job."

It is a difficult balance to strike: catering for elite athletes, while also offering something for the recreational gymnasts who understand their limitations but want to take part because they enjoy doing so. In addition, Kincaid – given the ages of girls she works with – also has to take on the roles of taxi driver, counsellor and teacher.

This column has been quick to point out the flaws and failings of sporting institutions in our region, so it is only fair to offer praise when a gym at the end of an industrial estate in Portishead can, in the space of 14 months, send two different competitors to the Olympics and World Championships, while maintaining a strong recreational programme for all. Elite but not elitist.

"I get driven and inspired by coming into the gym every day, working hard and seeing people develop and improve – even if it's something such as a gymnast doing a new dismount on the beam," said Kincaid. "Everyone needs goals, but the majority of the girls here are kids and they really don't need lots of pressure."

That said, as 17-year-old Harrold showed by qualifying for last night's all-around world final, and today's bars world final in Belgium, the culture at the Academy is such that when that pressure does come on, their gymnasts are more than capable of dealing with it.



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