As we continue our countdown to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which are 49 weeks away, sports reporter STEVE BARTON catches up with a gymnast aiming to prove her former coaches wrong.
FOR an elite level athlete to return from a major sporting games to be told their coaching hours have been halved, continuing to stay focused on a potential appearance at the 2012 Olympics Games cannot be an easy thing to do.
Yet that was the nightmare scenario facing gymnast Charlotte McKenna upon her return from last year’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, where she made the all-round individual women’s final competing for Northern Ireland.
McKenna is well aware that just making it to the Olympics would be ‘incredible’, but her chances have hardly been helped by what happened when she returned to training at Huntingdon Gymnastics Club following the Commonwealth Games.
The 17-year-old from Helions Bumpstead said: “I came back and went back to training as normal because I wanted to carry on as usual for the (2011) Europeans and Worlds and the head coach Paul Hall said, ‘no, you can only get three days (nine hours) a week’.”
McKenna, who had been training at Huntingdon — a club famed for producing 2008 Olympic bronze medallist Louis Smith — six days a week up until then, said: “He said ‘I feel that’s all you are good enough for now and to maintain our standard we only needed nine hours a week’.”
McKenna and five other elite female gymnasts were told the same news yet the male group faced no such cutbacks.
Not only that, McKenna said she was told if she qualified for last April’s European Championships in Berlin — which she did — she would be allowed to increase her hours in the six weeks prior to the competition.
This never transpired, and McKenna — who competes on the beam (her best and favourite discipline), uneven bars, vault and floor — said Hall took the decision ‘because she might get too tired.’
McKenna’s mum Jo, who has supported her daughter since she attended her first ever gymnastics class, at Haverhill Leisure Centre aged six, added: “We had a meeting with Paul Hall and we were told by him we were wasting our time and money on our child. How sad is that.
“The saddest part is there are still boys who don’t compete internationally or for Great Britain and they are still allowed to do as many hours as they want.
“Our child has put 11 years into it and trusted the club and has worked as hard as they can and is not being allowed to fulfil their goals really.”
In mid-May McKenna decided enough was enough at Huntingdon and moved to train full-time with the Salto Club in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, returning home only at weekends and living with a host family during the week. Her family visit her as often as they can.
Despite the upheavals, McKenna still qualified for the World Championships in Tokyo on October 6, achieving a score of 47.5 at the first of three trail dates, easily passing the qualifying mark of 46.
Mrs McKenna added: “Charlotte needs them (Huntingdon Gymnastics Club) to realise what they’ve done. She needs an apology.
“The more hours you do, the better you become. How can you compete at that standard with nine hours?”
The focus is now on Tokyo, which is also a qualifier for the Olympics, and with McKenna fully aware of the steep qualifying mark of 56 that is required — and that no Irish female gymnast has ever made it to the Olympics — she accepts excelling on an individual apparatus may be her best bet of making it to London 2012.
She said: “It really just depends on the day, how other gymnasts do and how I do. Anything can happen on the day. You can fall three times, it’s just down to the day.”
Mrs McKenna is also retaining hope, saying: “At the end of the day, no-one (gymnast) is as at the Olympics. Everyone is a hopeful. “There’s a whole year to go and everyone is hoping, but no-one is actually there, even the best, like Beth Tweddle, has to make the team.”
Huntingdon Gymnastics Club were unavailable for comment.