Frankie Jones factor helping Welsh gymnastics to flourish

Frankie Jones capped a fine 2014 Commonwealth Games by winning gold for Wales in the individual ribbon event
Frankie Jones capped a fine 2014 Commonwealth Games by winning gold for Wales in the individual ribbon event

I'm standing outside Cardiff's new gymnastics centre, Planet Gymnastics, and I can't get in.

I haven't got the time wrong and I'm not locked out. I simply can't get through the front door because of the stream of eager children going in and happy kids coming out.

The scene provides compelling evidence of the upsurge in popularity of the sport over the past few years, which has seen gymnastics clubs having to seek bigger and better venues to cope with demand.

Responsibility for a good chunk of this growth at grassroots level must be laid at the door of Frankie Jones, who cemented her place as one of Wales's finest gymnasts at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

The 24-year-old won six medals in rhythmic gymnastics at Glasgow, taking silvers in the team event, individual all-around, individual hoop, individual clubs and individual ball before claiming gold in the individual ribbon.

Jones's final competition before retirement was capped during the closing ceremony by winning the David Dixon award for fair play and inspiration.

She had led Team Wales into the Games after being given the honour of carrying the national flag, but in her new role as a coach is now the flag-bearer for the sport she loves.

"It's amazing to see so many different clubs being so much more successful, they're all moving into bigger units and needing that space for extra classes," said Jones as she surveyed Planet Gymnastics's new facilities at the official launch.

"I really enjoy coming to visit them and seeing all the gymnasts working. I saw them starting their rhythmics class down there and just wanted to join in and show them the ribbon!

"Gymnastics is such a fundamental sport to start and you can go onto any other sport from it; getting that basic level of gymnastics helps with everything.

"I think it's incredible, just the fact that people recognise what the sport is.

"I remember five or 10 years ago people would not have a clue what it was... the difference in public knowledge in the sport is incredible, let alone the fact that it's picking up in popularity because it is an amazing sport.

Commonwealth Games gold medal winner Frankie Jones
"If you don't have those grassroots clubs you're never going to find the elite-level gymnasts."

"So for people to know about it, and know that it's not just artistic there's rhythmic as well... it's having the options open for everybody."

The strength of Welsh gymnastics was reflected in the 2014 Wales Sports Awards, which saw Jones runner-up to cyclist Geraint Thomas for the BBC Cymru Wales Sports Personality of the Year.

Jo Coombs took the Coach of the Year award after leading the Welsh rhythmic gymnastics squad to eight medals in Glasgow, while Laura Halford, 18, was named Young Sportswoman of the Year after taking the Welsh and British senior titles and winning three Commonwealth medals.

"The whole gymnastics team did amazing, not just the rhythmic team, so that's obviously going to have some promotion to the public, which is phenomenal because it gets the sport out there," Jones said.

"That's what I want to do now is just promote it further, because I feel like it's such a good sport and you can gain so much from it.

"If you don't have those grassroots clubs you're never going to find the elite-level gymnasts.

"We've been incredibly lucky the last two years. Wales have put so much into us - Sport Wales and Welsh Gymnastics have supported us. I've never been supported and looked after as well as I have in the last two years' build-up to Glasgow.

"If that can continue for gymnasts in the future that will be a very good thing."

Before the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Planet Gymnastics was catering for 400-500 visitors each week but has seen that number soar to more than 1000 since Glasgow.

That picture has been replicated all over Wales, with clubs in Wrexham, Swansea, Newtown and Newport all having to find bigger premises.

Welsh Gymnastics has been keen to help the grassroots of the sport, with Sport Wales also offering development grant funding.

Planet Gymnastics
Gymnastics clubs in Wales have seen membership more than double in the past four years

While the big jump in popularity for gymnastics has come since London 2012, Jones believes the sport in Wales has been growing steadily since the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

"I think my medal in Delhi started it off, because if we hadn't had that success then the gymnastics wouldn't have had quite so much push," Jones said.

"Everything has grown and grown, the team with rhythmic and the team with artistic has just all fallen into place for the last Games.

"The gymnasts we've had, the commitment all the coaches and gymnasts have put into it has all happened together."

Now Jones is focused on her new role as a coach, but admits it is a brave new world.

"It's very, very different. I find it really hard because I'm so used to being on the other side but I'm gradually getting more used to it," Jones said.

"I've had my level two coaching course just finish with Jo Coombs, who's actually the head coach and programme director for our Glasgow team. So that's been really nice working alongside her.

"I've been in with the girls who I competed with in Glasgow, but I think I'm going to aim towards doing some of the younger ones we've got in the new clubs - I'll see where Welsh Gymnastics wants to utilise me."

If Jones can pass on even a part of her talent and experience to future generations of gymnasts, Wales looks set to enjoy more medal successes for many years to come.

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