Torvill & Dean helping British rhythmic gymnasts reach London 2012

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Torvill and Dean do rhythmic gymnastics

Britain's rhythmic gymnasts are in training, and the man barking out orders looks and sounds like any other coach.

"Everybody look in to Rachel. Rachel, look to the girls on the left. Give them a nod. Now look to the right. Confident! Are we happy to be doing it? Yes?

"Do it again."

Except this is Christopher Dean, with Jayne Torvill standing next to him. The finest British figure skaters of all time are here to fire up one of Britain's lowliest teams in Olympic sport.

Dean continues. "Stop just a second. What's that meant to be? A wave? But there's also a look, right?

"Sorry - can I use the word - can it be more seductive?"

Dean has never seen rhythmic gymnastics in the flesh before. This hardly sets him apart. The sport, which involves teams competing with balls, hoops and ribbons, is little-known in Britain, which has never sent competitors to an Olympic Games.

Now, for London 2012, there is a narrow shaft of light. If the group of teenage girls in front of Dean can hit a certain score at their Olympic test event, in January, they will earn the right to compete at the Games as the host nation.

Like its sister sport of artistic gymnastics - the one practised by Beth Tweddle, Louis Smith et al - success in rhythmic gymnastics relies not only on executing your performance well, but doing so in a way that connects with the judges.

Torvill and Dean know a thing or two about that. Performing their Bolero routine at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, the duo earned perfect 6.0 scores for artistic impression from every judge and duly won gold.

"In the early days, we were criticised by the judges for not smiling, not performing," says Torvill, now 54. "You have to find a way to bring that out of yourself."

Dean, 53, adds: "This is the same as our sport, skating. It's subjective and what one person sees or likes, the other might not. What you have to do is win over the majority, and the judges."

Seventeen-year-old team member Jade Faulkner is soon sold on this, and on Dean in particular, whose charismatic pronouncements from the sidelines strike a chord.

"He has a lot of personality and he's fun to work with," says Faulkner.

"Some of the things he said were really obvious. Like, 'just put your head up more'. Why didn't I do that before? They were saying about keeping your eyes up and I really didn't notice they were so down, until today.

"Some things weren't really what the sport is used to, not what we do. But they're not outside the rules, so we'll take them on board. It's what we need to do to stand out."

Faulkner is one of seven teenagers in the British rhythmic gymnastics team, based at the University of Bath.

Their sport demands the skills of a Harlem Globetrotter and the flamboyant athleticism of a ballerina. It is often derided by casual spectators as a sport unworthy of the name, let alone an Olympic berth.

"When people say things like that we ignore them," says team captain Rachel Smith as she fixes her hair in the mirror before training begins.

"We train very hard, every day, and we want people to see this is actually a sport and it needs the funding."

At the moment, there is barely any for these gymnasts. Four of them rent a house together in Bath using cash from their parents, who underwrite many other costs.

"It's always hard if you don't have the funding. But I can see this group are very driven and, obviously, they're not doing it for the money. That's great to see, these days," says Torvill.

Dean adds a note of realism. "By the time that we were heading to the 1984 Olympics, we wore the crown already and we had to act that. You had to be consistent, look strong, and deliver, taking on the persona that you are a champion already.

"It's hard before you become that. There's that leap to get to that point. The girls are a fledgling group and their goal is to get into the Olympics.

"They've not qualified yet. It's a big time ahead of them in their test event to actually get in and be a part of Team GB. So, fingers crossed."

Smith, at 18, already sees London 2012 as "the climax of my whole career". Britain did not come close to reaching this year's World Championships. Without a host nation place to aim for, their chances of qualifying for subsequent Games currently appear slim.

"This has been my dream since I was little," she says. "To go out there and prove that Britain, as a rhythmic gymnastics team, deserves to be up with everyone else.

"If we can qualify without the funding - struggle through it but still do it - and prove to our parents that we can do this, that the money has paid off… we'll make everyone proud."

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