Tuesday 28 January 2020

From school halls to world stage, we're head over heels in love with gymnastics

Junior gymnasts in training at Douglas Gymnastics Club in Cork. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney
Junior gymnasts in training at Douglas Gymnastics Club in Cork. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney
Ellis O’Reilly competing at the European Championships in 2015. Photo: Stephen McCarthy

Ciara Treacy

Long gone are the days of rolling across worn out gym mats in PE classes and doing the splits as an occasional party trick.

Irish people are now vaulting, tumbling and cartwheeling their way to international championships and even the Olympic stage.

Earlier this week, two gymnasts secured their places to represent Ireland at Rio 2016 - Kieran Behan, who became the second gymnast to represent Ireland at the Olympics in 2012, and Ellis O'Reilly, who will be the country's first female to compete in the games.

The diversity of its disciplines and gender-neutral appeal has led to a "massive surge" in the sport in recent years, according to Ciaran Gallagher, CEO of Gymnastics Ireland.

In 2007, the national governing body had 6,000 members, which has grown to 17,000 at present.

"We have seen a huge trend in moving from gymnastics clubs in a small school hall to full-time facilities, like over in the US," Mr Gallagher said.

"Participation has been a key driver in developing new programmes and events."

He believes gymnastics is "the foundation of all sports" as it introduces the concepts of mobility, flexibility and core strength for those who get involved in classes.

"It takes a very long time to get people to an Olympian level, but we hope that more will gradually progress and look towards the games in 2020 and 2024."

One club which has grown from the grassroots level is Douglas Gymnastics Club in Cork.

What began in 1978 as a parent-led group in the local school hall currently stands on a facility of 1,200 square metres.

"We have classes every day for all ages, beginning with parent and toddler groups where they do warm-ups, some games and can use the apparatuses under supervision," explained manager Rachel O'Byrne.

The club, which boasts 1,400 members, regularly sends representatives to competitions across the world.

"We encourage young people who have shown commitment in the club for a long time to then take on coaching in addition to their training," Ms O'Byrne added.

Another club, Grange Gymnastics in Santry, Dublin, is celebrating 100 years making gymnastics accessible to as many people as possible.

"Gymnastics is expensive, with equipment and classes, so we have always tried to do a lot of voluntary coaching so children get the chance to take part," said coach Michael Gallagher.

"We got a capital grant development for our centenary to refurbish equipment which allows us to cut costs for parents.

"Even GAA players come in on the bars to improve their strength which they use in football, so even if you're not training for the Olympics it has a huge benefit for everyone."

However, the games always bring a boost to business after children see the routines on TV, he explained.

A former member of the club, Barry McDonald, was the first gymnast to represent Ireland in the Olympic Games in Atlanta 20 years ago.

"The sport has a really tight community which is flourishing with two more Irish athletes on their way to Rio," Mr McDonald said.

"My nine-year-old is now involved and she's very good and disciplined. The main thing I would say to Kieran and Ellis is to enjoy all of it."

Irish Independent

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