GiveToLocal: How much of a part did sport have to play in your childhood?
Kristian Thomas: I started gymnastics when I was just five. As a kid I went swimming, played football and enjoyed a whole range of sports but gymnastics was the one that really stood out for me from a very young age. By the time I was 12 I was training 12 hours a week and so I had to make some tough choices in terms of giving up the other sports. I had to focus on gymnastics and within two years I was competing internationally.
GTL: How important was your support network?
KT: It was a huge commitment for me and my family and I owe my parents a lot. From an early age they would drive me 45 minutes from our home in Wolverhampton to a gym in Birmingham. Back then gymnastics was still very much a female-dominated sport and the opportunities for boys to train and compete were few and far between. You had to be dedicated and you needed a support network.
GTL: Has that situation improved?
KT: Definitely. After London 2012 there was a focus on maintaining and raising the profile of the sport and now almost anyone can access a gymnastics club that’s not too far away. They are dotted about across the UK and it’s unbelievable to see. It’s opened the door for a whole bunch of new talent to come through but there is one problem - there are too many young people wanting to try gymnastics right now! As a sport we’re struggling to fit everyone in even with the development of new facilities. The landscape might have changed dramatically from when I was starting out as a five-year-old but it’s clear that gymnastics can’t stop now. It needs to grow and continue to go from strength to strength.
GTL: Aside from helping you to take the first steps towards a career as an Olympian, how did grassroots gymnastics benefit you?
KT: My parents always said I was a little bit clumsy and so the coordination at the heart of gymnastics definitely helped me. And as a child I suppose I was quite an introvert. Putting myself in a position where I was going out and meeting new people was hugely beneficial in that respect. Gymnastics taught me how to be competitive and stay focused and then there are all of the obvious health benefits - both mental and physical. Grassroots sport gives young people an opportunity to discover who they are. I go into a lot of schools and try to drive that message home. You don’t need to compete at an elite level to experience the benefit of sport because it offers so many opportunities at every level. There will be sports out there that kids discover, enjoy and build a whole friendship group around. That’s what grassroots sport is all about.
GTL: How important is it to support those who focus on fundraising within the grassroots gymnastics community?
KT: It’s vital. Gymnastics can be a very costly sport. The purpose-built equipment that we need to use day in, day out isn’t cheap. Facilities need to be properly equipped, safe environments and ensuring that level of consistency requires significant funding. Fundraising is synonymous with grassroots sport and always will be. I remember doing the sponsored walks and sponsored supermarket bag packs as well as attending fundraising evenings at my gymnastics club. It’s integral to the day-to-day running of grassroots sport. But regular fundraising is also an opportunity for people in and around the club to connect and it brings the wider community closer together.
GTL: The coronavirus pandemic has denied children everywhere their fix of grassroots sport – how frustrating must that be?
KT: It must be very tough. I can’t imagine being 12 again and not being able to engage in sport every day. I also have a great deal of sympathy for their parents! Sport provides kids with a great outlet to burn off some energy. It gives them and their parents a break and if that outlet suddenly isn’t there anymore it’s going to be difficult. What I’ve enjoyed seeing during lockdown is the creative stuff that gymnasts and their clubs have been doing to keep the sport alive. Coaches have been able to check in with their gymnasts and ensure that the kids haven’t been left to their own devices. Engaging with members and creating that family feel has always been the lifeblood of a gymnastics club and especially at grassroots level. We need to make sure that COVID-19 doesn’t lead to kids drifting away from our sport. We need the numbers. Without grassroots gymnastics the next generation of elite gymnasts won’t come through.
GTL: Can you describe your lockdown experience?
KT: I’m working with the British Athletes Commission now. It’s an independent body which represents the interests of elite athletes in the high-performance system. We offer independent, confidential advice to athletes across the board. I’m an athlete engagement officer and it’s fantastic to be working in elite sport again. I graduated with a degree in S&C from Wolverhampton University last year and it was always my aim to get back into elite sport. My role is to engage with athletes and, if I’m honest, lockdown has made my job so much easier because I actually know where the athletes are! Normally they’re spread across the world and I’m always chasing them here and there. My meetings have been moved online and so I’ve been very lucky that I haven’t really had to change much. I love the role that I have now. I understand what it takes to be an athlete at the top level and so I hope I’m able to offer advice and support when it’s needed.