London 2012: Gymnast Beth Tweddle's battle with her body

In the latest part of our weekly#olympicthursdayexternal-linkseries profiling leading British hopes, BBC Olympic sports reporter Ollie Williams speaks to gymnast Beth Tweddle.

"To be honest, I didn't think at the age of 27 I'd still be wearing a leotard."

We are now in the closing stages of the career that revolutionised British gymnastics. In two months' time, the Beth Tweddle era will be over.

Born in South Africa but a proud product of Liverpool, Tweddle entered her first major world event in 2001, aged 16.

By 2002, she was a European medallist and Commonwealth champion. In 2003 came a first world medal, and 2006 saw her crowned European and world champion on the uneven bars.

The idol to a generation or more of young female gymnasts will end her career with three world titles to her name - two on the bars and one in the floor event, the latter won inside London's O2 Arena in 2009.

Now she sits inside the same arena, which will shortly become the home of London 2012's Olympic gymnastics, and ruminates on the subject of leotards. Thousands bearing her name and signature are sold each year, but few are worn by women in their mid-to-late 20s.

"They're not the most comfortable piece of clothing," she confesses. "This time, it was nice to pack for two days and not have to put a leotard in the bag."

While there are gymnasts far older than Tweddle still competing internationally - Oksana Chusovitina of Germany, for example, is 36 - it is rare to get much beyond 20 in the sport.

Tweddle's longevity and success are remarkable, all the more so as the woman whose achievements helped to haul Britain's gymnasts forward into a new era.

Her world titles reinvigorated the sport, convinced judges that British performances mattered, persuaded funding bodies and sponsors to come on board, and showed younger gymnasts you could be British and succeed.

"I'll think more about that when I retire, and I can look back over what I've achieved," she says. "For now, I'm only as good as my next result."

With one result left to get, Tweddle is set to be named as the leader of Britain's five-strong women's gymnastics team for her home Olympics next week, coming through a lengthy battle against her own body to make it this far.

She missed this year's European Championships, in May, having had keyhole surgery on a knee problem, and has been sleeping with a machine strapped around her knee to keep it iced through the night (bought with the help of millionaire philanthropist Barrie Wells, who has given a number of Team GB athletes financial aid).

"It runs from above my knee to halfway down my shin and ices and compresses, which is vital as there is not the time during a day's training," she wrote in her Metro columnexternal-link recently.

The machine did the trick. She scored a healthy 15.850 to win the bars final at last weekend's British Championships, her final Olympic selection event, and demonstrated she can still challenge for an Olympic medal.

Famed in the sport for her flamboyant bars routine, a gold medal is not out of the question. But having finished fourth in that event at Beijing 2008, an Olympic medal is the one honour in the sport that eludes her.

"I found Beijing so hard to get over," she remembers. "There was so much hype after the Olympics. You came home and it was everywhere, on the telly and the radio. I literally just booked a flight and went on holiday with a friend.

"I'd love to finish my career with an Olympic medal, but it's not the be-all and end-all. I've achieved a lot more than I thought I would with gymnastics."

Regardless of the result, in many ways Tweddle will be set free after the closing ceremony. Gymnastics has been her love and her life, but she has grand - unlikely - plans for retirement.

"I'll never walk away from gymnastics. It's been too much a part of my life, I enjoy coming and getting to see old friends. It's a big family," she says.

"But I look forward to life afterwards. I'll miss the lifestyle, I'll miss the competing, I definitely won't miss all the hours of training.

"I want to be able to meet up with friends whenever I want, go skydiving, or skiing or wingwalking, and not wake up in the middle of the night to check an injury."


"Anything where I can risk getting injured. Maybe because I haven't been allowed to do it, it makes me want to do it more. A lot of people think I'm mad, like my mum.

"I probably won't let them know until I've actually done it."

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