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Gymnastics swings to new heights

The surge of interest in gymnastics over the past year means children are already using Scotland's new premier facilities, writes Roddy Mackenzie

Midlothian can now boast Scotland's best gymnastics facility, ahead of Broadwood in Cumbernauld and Bellahouston in Glasgow, and use from recreational and competitive gymnasts is expected to be heavy.

The new facility at Lasswade High School Centre will not be officially opened until November 20 but children in the area already have started taking advantage of it.

Lasswade Gymnastics Club, the host club at the new Midlothian School of Gymnastics (its "Sunday name", according to centre manager Ron Newton), can hardly believe the metamorphosis. The 32m x 26m training hall includes a sprung floor, a tumble track and vault, full international specification apparatus with a high bar, asymmetric bars and parallel bars and a sunken trampoline, beams, rings, pommels and other ancillary equipment.

The club, founded in 1978 by Mr Newton among others, had grown accustomed to sharing a multi-purpose sports hall. Then an anonymous benefactor donated a considerable sum to allow the facility to qualify for a pound;500,000 National Lottery grant to become a state-of-the-art facility. The total cost of the project has been almost pound;1 million.

Mr Newton is sure that having such a modern facility will lead to a huge upsurge in local interest in gymnastics. The club has a membership of around 100 but that is likely to grow substantially.

The centre will open up new opportunities for gymnastics. There have already been discussions about the possibility of creating an academy, where talented gymnasts could attend Lasswade High for their schooling and spend two or three hours a day on gymnastics training.

The centre will be open seven days a week from 9am-10pm. Lasswade High and other local schools will have the use of it for physical education lessons and after-school clubs.

School sports co-ordinators have been in discussions with Midlothian Council and the centre's management and it is anticipated it will cater for all levels of gymnasts.

Such a facility gives Scotland the chance to produce a steady stream of gymnasts for international competition in the future. There has already been an indication that Scotland's national squads will use it for training.

"Hopefully, one day the centre will produce elite gymnasts who will perform at the top level. There are already a number of promising ones who are doing well at regional and national level," says Mr Newton.

"What this new facility will give us is time," he says. "Like all multi-use facilities, we always had to spend 30-45 minutes setting up equipment and, at the end of the night, another 30-45 minutes taking it down. With a purpose-built facility there is not so much time wasted."

Mr Newton hopes to serve not only the local area but also East Lothian, the north Borders area and south Edinburgh - really the whole eastern region of Scotland - and a network of contacts has been set up.

Ruth Gibson, the national development co-ordinator for Scottish Gymnastics, rates the new facility as one of the best in Britain and believes it is something the sport has needed to meet the recent increase of interest. The sport has been enjoying a boom in schools following Steve Frew's Commonwealth gold medal for his individual rings performance in Manchester last year.

"Last year, there were 300 competitors at the Scottish schools'

championship finals in Perth and that is after 12 regional heats, which would each have about 200 gymnasts taking part," she says.

"We expect that number to increase dramatically this year as the sport is really taking off in the schools.

"For the first time, last year we had a team - Craigmount High from Edinburgh - who went to the British finals and came back with a bronze medal. These were 13-year-olds and that is an age when it is difficult to keep children - especially boys - in the sport.

"But the sport is expanding in Scotland. We are already up on the number of schools who have affiliated this year. It is early in the season and 100 schools have registered so far."

However, given the technical demands and the risk of injuries, there has been a reluctance from PE teachers to offer gymnastics.

The sport's governing body has tried to address this by launching a new foundation coach licence ideally suited to PE teachers. It is designed to allow coaches to teach the basics in environments with limited facilities.

Licence holders would be able to coach in established clubs and within local authority facilities.

"Some PE teachers are reluctant to teach gymnastics because they do not have the specialist knowledge and there is a risk of injury," Ms Gibson acknowledges. "But the new licence strips coaching back to basics and simplifies everything, which is something that's not been done before.

"There is even advice on what to do if everything goes pear-shaped during a lesson.

"We don't have the finances to distribute the programme free to schools but we've already sold around 100."

Scottish Gymnastics, tel 01324 886505

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