OTHER than gymnastics experts, few people had heard of Nile Wilson as the London 2012 Olympics began.
The Pudsey athlete had bagged a gold and silver at that year’s Junior European Championships but, to the wider world, the 16-year-old was unknown as he watched Great Britain’s quintet take a team bronze.
Three years later, that quintet have a combined social media following of 360,000 with Louis Smith an MBE with a high profile celebratory girlfriend in Lucy Mecklenburgh from The Only Way Is Essex.
And now the only way is up for Wilson who finds himself on that same GB team one year short of Rio ahead of next week’s World Championships in Glasgow. It’s just a question of how high Wilson’s profile will rise, or a Question of Sport even with the 19-year-old already making a name for himself on TV.
He has seven years to reach 26-year-old Smith’s stardom but stresses: “He’s got his profile from winning Olympic medals and world medals. That’s my goal and dream.”
Wilson, who proudly flies the flag for the City of Leeds Gymnastic Club, is one of six athletes preparing to represent Team GB at the forthcoming World Championships in Glasgow. And the teenager features in a high profile team that also includes Smith, Max Whitlock, Kristian Thomas and Daniel Purvis, as well as 18-year-old debutante Brinn Bevan.
Gone are the days when the country’s leading gymnasts went unnoticed, a point proved by Smith’s 240,000 followers on Twitter, his celebrity ‘other half’ and the rather large matter of an MBE. Wilson isn’t at that level but does have 15,000 followers, a medal bearer student girlfriend in Sophie Brewster and a recent high profile TV appearance on a Question of Sport.
He insists that gymnastic glories remain his main focus with the Yorkshireman having his eye on the next three Olympic Games no less, during which time his profile is also certain to rise.
A natural in front of the camera, that’s fine with Wilson just so long as he’s got medals round his neck to associate the growing fame.
Taking 10 minutes out of his busy schedule at Team GB’s national training headquarters in Lilleshall, Wilson told the YEP: “Gymnastics has sort of blown up after the 2012 Olympics and then the Commonwealth Games were massive. It’s starting to be a more popular sport now which is fantastic for us and I see it as unique in a way that I am competing in my team with Christian and Lewis who are both 26 years old. Brinn has just got in there and he’s 18, I’m 19 and the young and the old ones are mixing it together. The names in there – Max, Louis, Christian, Dan Purvis – we are the best in the country and I think from that last Olympic result – those guys that won a bronze medal have proved that we are one of the best gymnastics countries in the world so that’s a massive confidence boost and that was a big inspiration to me to be on there with them.
“Three or four years later I am on the team and fighting for those medals.
“Louis and Max would have the biggest profiles but for me it’s been exciting like having mini things and A Question of Sport was really fun.
“I had a great time on there but I just want to let the gymnastics do the talking and that’s what’s important for me. To stay grounded and humble and never stop working as hard as I am now. I love the sport and my passion is being at these competitions and performing the way I do.
“The profile coming off the back of it is really exciting and the amount of support we get.
“I have built up quite a fair following on my social media and it’s so nice to see everyone’s comments and the support that we get. That gives you a boost definitely and it’s a big inspiration.
“I enjoy it, I totally enjoy it and also my goal as well is to help other gymnasts.
“I’ve started a YouTube page where I am posting videos on there and my social media and I really want to help everyone out and teach people what I have learned from my experiences in my gymnastics career.
“I just go on A Question of Sport and things TV-related and just try and be myself as much as I can. Whether I’m a natural or not I don’t know. I just try and enjoy myself.”
Most importantly of all the teenager is a natural in the gymnastics sphere with and is already approaching his second World Championships at just 19 years of age.
After bagging an amazing four medals at last year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Wilson formed part of the Team GB heading for Worlds duty in China and made the all-round and high bar final before having to pull out of the event with a wrist injury.
The popular Yorkshireman feared the setback could harm his chances of making the plane to Rio and always stressed that selection for this month’s World Championships would be make or break.
“It’s been a relentless and rollercoaster year so it’s amazing feeling to make the team,” said Wilson.
“I’m just so happy from last year with the injury and everything. I knew it was going to be a challenge but I love a challenge and I always rise to a challenge. Now I’m back.”
Back and highly likely here to stay with Wilson not turning 20 until January and dreaming not just of Rio 2016 but Tokyo 2020 and the Olympic Games of 2024 with Paris favourite to be the host city.
But first comes the rather large matter of the World Championships which act as a qualifier for Rio but are also a rather big deal in their own right.
“The World Championships – probably bar the Olympic Games – is the biggest competition for a gymnast ever,” said Wilson.
“To show that you are winning medals on the world stage is incredible and this competition is qualification for Rio so if we get a team in that top eight we have automatically qualified a team to the Olympic Games so that’s important.
“I think we are going into this competition just focused on that team result and not worrying too much about individuals.
“If we are successful in the team event then the individual stuff will come after.
“We were fourth last year so we know we are more than capable of making that final and for us our goal is to be challenging for the medals. We came fourth by a close margin last year and we’re a stronger team now I’m sure of it.
“It’s a home games so we’ve got that home support and crowd behind us so it will be really exciting to watch. I’m sure we can fight for a medal place and if I can go there and prove that I belong in that environment and that I can perform then Rio is definitely on the cards. It’s coming up fast so the important thing is staying fit and healthy and I can definitely be there.”
And at Tokyo, and at Paris. Assessing whether Paris 2024 is on the cards, Wilson pondered: “It is a high demand on your body, I’m 19 years old but I can already tell the guys who are a little bit older are finding it hard and their training schedules are a little different from ours. But as long as I can stay fit and healthy and stay away from injuries then I would love to stay on for another two Olympic cycles. It would be great. I want to stay for as long as I can.”