GYMNASTICS made Nile Wilson. The clumsy child who used to fall over his own shadow is now one of the sport’s poster boys after winning an Olympic medal a year ago.
Now Wilson, the sportsman who flies through the air for a living, has set his sights on changing gymnastics so the burgeoning sport transforms even more lives.
This leap of faith follows 12 months like no other in his life – from the great personal high of winning a bronze on the horizontal high bar at the Rio Olympics to the private despair when he snapped ankle ligaments during a routine training exercise at the start of 2017.
Yet, while such injuries are an occupational hazard in a sport where competitors are expected to twist and turn with such subtlety, it’s also been a cathartic exercise. For, instead of wallowing in self-pity, the 21-year-old chose to use social media, including his own Facebook channel, to chart his recovery step by step while using his infectious energy and personality to encourage others to start doing handstands and other exercises.
In turn, the public’s overwhelming response is now inspiring Wilson to reach even greater heights after he admitted that he’s more “proud” of how he has handled this comeback than any other achievement in his career to date.
“I want to be the world’s best all- round gymnast,” he tells The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview at Leeds Gymnastics Club. “When you read an email to say your videos have changed my life, the feeling that I get from reading that, and the motivation I get, I want to keep doing that.
“When I come here every day, I want to the best I can be, to become the best gymnast I can be. I’m taking it as it comes. I’m enjoying it. I am very, very happy that I’m doing what I love every single day. In 10 years time, I still want to be doing what I love every single day. That’s my ambition. And, yes, keep changing people’s lives.”
Asked what ‘buzz’ he gets from this interaction with his growing army of fans, Wilson pauses. “Oh my God,” he says. “It gives me goose bumps.” You can hear in his voice that he means it.
However this humble young man is not backward in coming forward to explain his goals. “Tokyo, Olympic gold, Multi-millionaire,” he then says without sounding bashful or arrogant while resting his injured left ankle in a bucket of iced water.
It’s a journey all the more remarkable considering Wilson’s early years. “I would fall over my own shadow so my parents thought I need to be taught some spatial awareness,” he recalls. “I started at Pudsey Leisure Centre and then went to Leeds Gymnastics Club’s summer camp.”
Yet his early potential was self-evident. When his parents let him make a Hollywood walk of fame-style palm-print in concrete in their garden, the words ‘Olympic gymnast’ were placed above the imprint of the seven-year-old’s tender hands.
Further inspired, and motivated, by Team GB’s success at London where he witnessed his heroes Louis Smith and Max Whitlock, now team-mates, medal on the pommel horse, his own career took off. European junior success in 2014 was followed by two gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and then team silver, another first Britain, at the following year’s World Championships.
And then Brazil. Eighth in the all round final, the event he would most like to win in Tokyo, he became the first Briton to not only qualify for the high bar final, but win a medal.
These were dizzying times as Britain won an unparalleled seven medals in gymnastics.
He describes his personal final, where he used the leverage gained from super-strong shoulders to soar through the air, as “my whole life’s work in seconds in front of seven million people watching on TV at home”.
“It’s all a bit of a blur,” said Wilson who roared ‘come on’ in his unmistakable Yorkshire accent as he nailed the landing. And then the long wait, as rivals fell by the wayside, for confirmation that a bronze medal was coming home to Leeds.
He’s the first to admit that he found motivation difficult after Rio. He returned to his club, a glorified warehouse at Seacroft, to spot a giant poster in pride of place in the gymnasium featuring him in action and the words ‘Leeds Gymnastics Club. Home of Olympians past, present and future’.
Though he helped Leeds to win the British team title, he was only getting back into the rhythm of training when a routine piece of work on the parallel bars saw him fall from an innocuous six feet and snap two ankle ligaments.
And, while he freely admits part of the recovery has been ‘hell’, he’s still hoping to prove his form and fitness ahead of October’s World Championships in Montreal. At least, he says, the injury did not happen in an Olympic year. Neverthelesss, he’ll have to be at his very best. Competition for places is so intense that there are no guarantees – the Olympics is firmly in the past – and this will increase still further as more gymnasts come to the fore.
As he rests his ankle, Wilson is encouraging the next generation – including those given dispensation from school – as they twist and tumbleturn with alacrity.
To them, he’s just Nile, the care-free cheeky chappie whose always smiling and having fun in a club that can be described as the best adventure playground of Leeds because of the apparatus on special sponge-like matting (ironically to reduce the risk of injury).
To Wilson, he’s one of a new generation of role models increasingly aware of their wider social responsibilities to their sport – and this latest adversity was an opportunity not to be missed. “Almost straight away, I decided – you know what? – I’ve done this before and I’m going to use this in a positive way,” he said. “I’m going to reach out to many, many people. I’m going to document my journey on YouTube and social media very actively, strengths and weaknesses.
“My original goal was to get as many into gymnastics as possible and teach as many people how to do a handstand. My YouTube completely blew up. I’m currently at 25 million hits across the whole channel. From January to now, I’ve increased 200,000 subscribers. I’m reaching out to hundreds and thousands of people; the feeling of that is incredible.”
At the same time, Wilson, has also set up his own business, Bodybible, which provides online fitness sessions. Again the take-up has been extraordinary. “Inspiring is important, but it is our platform,” he adds. “It is our job to become influencers, to build our profile,” says Wilson who had the words ‘the only limitations in life are the ones we set ourselves” tattooed onto his toned body for extra inspiration.
In the meantime, Nile Wilson has new horizons in sight: “Now the job is to get back to be the awesome gymnast I know I can be.” He will.
My mission: ‘If no one does it, I will’
NILE WILSON doesn’t want gymnastics to be a sport people watch at the Olympics once every four years. He wants it to become mainstream.
He believes this is possible as Team GB’s medal-winners, like double Olympic gold medallist Max Whitlock, embrace social media and utilise their new-found popularity. He’d change the scoring system so it’s easier to follow for spectators and hold exciting events in major city venues.
“Look at darts. Two guys throwing arrows into a board. Thousands of people go there and have the time of their lives,” he says. “If no one does it, I will. Gymnastics is the best sport in the world because of how unique it is. No one off the street can do what we do. That’s why it is so exciting.”