Saturday interview: Fall and rise of games golden boy Wilson

Leeds gymnast Nile Wilson, at Leeds Gymnastics Club. (Picture: James Hardisty).
Leeds gymnast Nile Wilson, at Leeds Gymnastics Club. (Picture: James Hardisty).
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The brightest young prospect in British gymnastics fell into his chosen sport – literally.

At the age of five, Nile Wilson was sent to Leeds Gymnastics Club by his parents because they thought it would teach him how to fall – and bring an end to their repeated trips to hospital.

“When I was young I was quite clumsy,” admits Wilson, who in sporting terms is still young now.

“I cut my head open about four times and it got to the stage where my mum and dad just wanted to teach me how to fall and give me a bit more awareness.”

The accident-prone toddler had accrued a varying litany of mishaps, from the classic tripping into a wall to the one where he fell onto the corner of a television cabinet.

But the one that inadvertently prompted the start of one of the most promising careers in the sport, was at least out of his control.

“I was playing with my cousin on a big slide and he pushed the slide and it fell,” recalls Wilson.

“I was at the top of it and I landed on a concrete bird bath. I’ve still got the scars now.”

So Mr and Mrs Wilson sent their adventurous young boy to Leeds Gymnastics Club, a council-run programme that catered for maybe 200 children.

Wilson fell head over heels in love with gymnastics, because it satisfied his energy levels and uncontrollable urge to climb on objects.

Thirteen years on, Wilson and Leeds Gymnastics Club have grown together. The club now occupies a vast warehouse in Seacroft and caters for all ages from pre-school tots to people in their fifties. They run sessions seven days a week and have more than 1,250 members.

But the headline act is Wilson, whose tireless work ethic and precocious talent blossomed in 2014.

Over the course of three major events, Wilson went from bright young prospect to established world competitor.

At the European Junior Championships in Sofia in May, the Pudsey Grangefield School pupil won five gold medals.

At the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July, he won four medals; a gold in the team final alongside household names Louis Smith and Max Whitlock, and then a medal of each colour in the individual events. In the space of one afternoon he won a gold and a silver.

And to cap it all, he then joined the British squad at the world championships in Nanning, China, in October, and nearly helped them rewrite history by winning a medal in the team final, before reaching two further individual finals.

“Picking a highlight is hard,” says the 18-year-old from the viewing platform overlooking the padded floor of the Leeds club he spends 36 hours a week at.

“The world championship team final was probably the highlight. That adrenalin and excitement and pressure of knowing you have to deliver was like nothing I’ve experienced before.

“We were really close to that bronze, but it is still the best result GB have had at any world championships.

“But it’s been a year beyond my wildest dreams. At the beginning of the year the European Juniors was the only thing I was looking towards.

“I knew if I did well there the Commonwealths was an opportunity. So it was great to smash it at the Europeans.

“Making the team for the Commonwealths was achievement enough, so to then go to Glasgow and win four medals was unbelievable.

“And the worlds were not even in the plan, I was not expecting to get in that team, so to be in the all-round and high bar final at my first world championships at 18 was again, just unbelievable.

“Looking back now, I worked really hard and it went better than planned. I’m just absolutely thrilled with it.”

During a remarkable period of success, Wilson’s ability to cope under pressure and his growing maturity came to the fore.

“I’d had so much pressure on my shoulders at the Europeans, so to get through that was a relief more than anything and it provided the platform for the seniors,” he says.

“I was thrown straight into the higher level and there were questions about whether I’d handle it with the Commonwealths being such a massive event; all the television cameras, the multi-event status and the huge crowds of 12,000.

“I’d also gone from being team captain with the younger lads to being the baby of the senior group.”

This unprecedented run of highs has not come without a price.

Wilson’s right hand is currently in a brace because of a “wear and tear” injury that forced him to sit out a final at the world championships.

The damaged wrist might not heal fully until the new year and means that, even though it is a downtime in the world of gymnastics, he is unable to work through the winter on improving his routines and enhancing his specialist status in the high bar and parallel bars.

His schoolwork has also suffered while he mixed competing around the world with intense training camps at the GB base at Lilleshall.

If there is an upside to the injury, it has meant he can finally finish his A-level studies before Christmas. But another test of his mental strength has proved equally taxing.

He explains: “Usually an athlete has to peak once a year for major championships – I had to do it three times.

“By the time of the worlds I was shattered physically and mentally because there had been no down time.

“Every time I got home from a championship it was like I had a mental breakdown. I was absolutely drained.”

But the positives of 2014 far outweigh the negatives.

Like Friday, August 1, when he won Commonwealth silver in the parallel bars before returning later in the afternoon to claim a gold in the horizontal bar.

“I’d competed the whole week, it was hard physically doing Monday to Friday and by that last day I was tired and sore, but that felt normal, because that’s how I train,” says Wilson.

“By Friday I’m usually sore anyway so I just approached it how I normally would and treated the parallel bar and high bar routine how I would do in training.

“I just try and get into what I call my ‘happy room’ where it’s just me and the apparatus and everything is blocked out. It seems to work. And although it was a little different with 12,000 in the audience, that’s the approach and so far it’s worked.”

Wilson’s rapid development has ignited the desire within him to compete at the Rio Olympics in 2016. No matter the success he has enjoyed this summer, the selection process is ruthless, with only five members of a highly-competitive 20-man British squad earning selection.

“It’s been a great year because I’ve got my name out there and prove I can handle the pressure,” continues Wilson, for whom the world championships in Glasgow next October are the main goal of 2015.

“Beforehand, you don’t know how you’re going to handle the big competitions and because there’s 20 guys it’s really tough to get into that team. So I can’t rest on what I’ve done.”