Ridiculous as it sounds, a part of me was shocked to see Beth Tweddle dressed the way she was. Having seen nothing but footage of her performing in a leotard, hand guards and a facelift ponytail, the smart, professional woman approaching the union didn’t quite fit the gymnast stereotype. Gone were the scrunchie, trademark braces and stern competitive pokerface of the serious athlete, and before me was a young, friendly and confident woman. And this athlete has a lot to be confident about. The union posters stated that “Beth is considered to be one of the most successful British gymnasts of all time”. The tone of this sentence is incorrect, as there is nothing subjective about the facts. Beth is THE British gymnast. With over 16 world and European stage medals, she has single handedly changed the fortune of the Brits in this intricate sport. In the past our presence alone at any championship was considered a big achievement. She is not only present, she is a threat. And she is winning.
At the time of the interview, it is less than a week since Beth defended her double European title. “This year was always going to be a lot more challenging just because obviously the pressure is on. it’s always easier to chase the champion than it is to be the champion because people are always trying to hunt you down and pull your routines down. And obviously the judges know my routines, they know exactly what to deduct”. Despite any modesty, however, Beth’s routines are pretty unbeatable at the European level, as she some of the hardest elements in the entire world. But she sounds as though she never sets her sights too high: “I kind of went in with the mentality of “I’ve got nothing to lose”, it was the home crowd I wanted to enjoy it”.
Beth’s success is by no means just on the European stage. She has two world championship gold medals. In 2006 she beat Nastia Liukin, the American gymnastics superstar who Beth quoted as her biggest competitor, into second place on her specialist apparatus, the uneven bars. Then in 2009, at London’s O2 arena, she gained her second gold. But this time it was on floor, a piece Beth is not quite as renowned for. I asked her which meant more to her. “A lot of people have asked me this, and I think the answer is definitely that floor meant a lot more. Over my career everyone has kind of known me for being a bar worker and sort of put me down as a one trick pony, and I’ve been trying to prove over and over again over the years that I’m not just a bar worker, I do have other elements to my gymnastics. And I guess also at the O2 having fallen off bars, I thought my world championships was over [Beth fell from her signature piece in the qualifying round]. But then I realised I had qualified for floor and it was like, I’ve got nothing to lose, there is a silver lining in every cloud”
The 2007 world championship was Beth’s last international all around competition, which in gymnastics means that it was the last time she competed on all four apparatus (vault, beam, uneven bars and floor). She opted to become a floor and bars specialist. “When I look at the all around competition, I do miss participating in it. It’s one competition less to get involved in. But I don’t miss all the training for it, especially beam; it hurt my feet so much. That’s the reason I took away the all around”. This in no way means that Beth lightened her training schedule. She trains over 30 hours a week and Sunday is the only day she spends out of the gym. “Sunday is the best day”, she said, “shopping and Hollyoaks in bed”.
Having originally set her retirement date as the end of the 2006 commonwealth games, 25 year old Beth says that she is working towards the 2012 games, an event which will be the “END end” of her career. If she makes it, she will become one of an incredibly small elite who have made it to 3 Olympics in their career. The thing is, gymnastics is not like football. It is completely dominated by young (some would say underdeveloped) teenagers. And if you make a mistake, there are not many chances to put it right. “There have been occasional times when I wanted to stop; when you’re injured it is very hard. But you never remember the bad times when you look over your career, only the good times, and when you get the results like at the weekend or at the world championships and you have the medal round your neck and you have achieved your target, it puts away the fears”. When asked how she would like to be remembered, she calmly replied: “Someone who won’t give up after one setback, which I think I have proved time and time again. Yeah, definitely, as a fighter”.
So what is Beth’s dream before the end? “I’ve achieved a lot more than I ever thought I would. I think I’ve won something like 18 world and European stage medals, but there is one missing and that’s an Olympic one. If I can get to 2012 and be part of that team that will definitely be an ambition. But if not, I’ve got a lot to look back at across my career. But I think to myself “I can’t retire now because otherwise I will look back and think it was only two years away, why did I retire?! I don’t want to hang up the guards before I’ve given it a go.”