FLASHBACK: Burnley Olympian Craig Heap’s Golden memories revisited

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IN sport the emphasis shouldn’t always be agglomerated on the colour you win, it’s the colour that you’re representing that counts.

Gold, silver and bronze medals are a rare, yet prestigious, commodity. A glittering and coveted reward that marks your excellence and dominance in a certain field. But for some the importance is concentrated upon achieving a personal best, embodying the tenacity and guile to succeed in individual goals, and experiencing the exhilaration, pride and passion of representing a club or country.

With just 81 days remaining until the birth of London 2012, Burnley Olympian Craig Heap fondly reminisces about his heroic 32nd place finish at the 2000 Games in Sydney, a moment which sits more prominently in his memory than the gold medals gained in the 1998 and 2002 Commonwealth Games.

Britain’s former number one gymnast has a hyperactive and energetic persona to thank for his eventual success. From an early age, in the comfort of his own home, he would leapfrog furniture, somersault over beds or spring over any obstacles that dared to stand in his path. It was at that point his mother Stephanie decided to introduce him to the more appropriate surroundings of the Thompson Centre.

“I started my gymnastic career at the old Thompson Centre,” he said. “My sister, Nicola, used to do gymnastics there originally and my mother took me down one day to have a look and it sort of took off from there really.

I got the bug. I was diving over furniture in the house, somersaulting over my parents’ bed and the rest is history. I was very hyperactive, I think my parents struggled to contain my energy so it was a good way to burn of that excess energy.”

Spurred on by coach Mick Redmond, Craig had to overcome pessimists, doubters and negative comments from figures within the sport as he fought for recognition within regional competitions. But then his breakthrough came with selection to the North West squad for the national championships, competing against the most promising protégés from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland at the Lilleshall National Sports Centre in Shropshire.

“I think my fondest memory was when I was selected to represent the North West in our national championships,” beamed Craig. “The North West has quite a strong gymnastic pedigree and I remember I didn’t make the team at my first attempt, I wasn’t good enough.

“But I was determined to make the team the second year. I made the team and the they actually won the team event. All the kids were lined up and they then awarded the individuals. I never thought in a million years that I’d done well enough to pick up an individual medal.

“They called my name out and I was sat there absolutely gobsmacked because I’d won a bronze medal. It had to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life. That first success is something that’s always stuck with me and I think I went to sleep that night with my medals around my neck.”

And that moment of glory bred further success. As Craig entered his teens he was included in the British Schools Gymnastic Association National Squad, while also competing in events including the British Youth and Junior championships. After that international coaches came calling and he was selected for Great Britain.

Craig competed in junior internationals in Sweden and France, and represented team GB in one of the ultimate junior competitions in the world - the World School Games in Bruges, Belgium. At the age of 16 he was crowned Junior British champion.

“I didn’t realise I was any good until I was about 16 and I became the junior British champion,” he said. “If I’m honest when I first started I didn’t think I was very good. I was a late developer in the sense of getting the strength to do gymnastics and I was at the bottom end for a long time.

“When I got in to the British team I was a skinny, puny little kid from Burnley. Ten guys were selected and I was probably number 10, just scraping in, and some of the coaches had written me off, telling me that I wasn’t cut out for gymnastics.”

Craig added: “But I’m quite stubborn and that’s my personality and when I’m told that I can’t do something I like to do my bit to prove them wrong. It’s a good thing that I was stubborn or I might have chucked in the towel early on. There’s nothing more satisfying in life than doing something that people said you could never do.”

Obviously inclusion in the British squad was an honour, but Craig was determined for added decoration in gymnastics. And that desire prompted a life-changing decision: continue working at Adamson’s Farm with his parents or move away to develop and become the cream of the crop.

A typical day would have seen Craig start work at 6 a.m., alongside dad David, before going training at noon. That had to change and the Central Manchester Institute of Gymnastics in Gorton became his new home.

“I was training part time when I was training in Burnley,” he said. “When I left Barden High School I started working on my parents’ farm and I was just doing a bit of training during the day with my coach, then I’d do a session at night.

“We tried to increase the hours as much as possible and it went to about three times a week. At that point I still didn’t feel like I’d become a gymnast full-time. I thought it would fizzle out one day and I’d end up working on the farm.”

He added: “That was the defining moment in my life. By the time I turned up at the gym I was knackered because I’d done a days work. I was trying to compete against people who had just rolled out of bed and turned up at the gym fresh as a daisy. Something had to give and I had to make a decision - move away from home and follow my dreams or become a farmer. I think I made the right decision.”

That decision proved magnanimous to his career. Even after the disappointment and heartache of missing out on the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 he continued to train in resplendent fashion. And that unwavering strength, vision and attitude would be rewarded just two years later with a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

Craig captained the England side, also including Andrew Atherton, John Smethurst, Lee McDermott and Ross Brewer, to glory while warding off the challenge of the strongly-fancied Australians and Canadians. His elation was immeasurable, even having missed out on a medal in the individual events after finishing fifth.

“I think representing their country is probably the greatest honour that any athlete can have,” smiled Craig. “First of all I was really glad to be representing Burnley and my family then obviously if you represent your country it just magnifies the level of gladness that you have. It was a pretty proud moment.

“There’s nothing better than winning when you’re not expected to or you’re the underdogs. The win in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 was the first team gold medal that England had ever won.

“We were on for a silver or bronze but we actually pipped Australia to the gold medal. I think what made it even more special was the fact that I was captaining the team. We made history that year and captaining England to that Commonwealth gold medal was one of my proudest moments.”

Burnley’s golden wonder then won the English Championships for the first time in Stoke in June, 2002, to book his place at Manchester’s Commonwealth Games. Again Craig struck gold as England captain as part of a five-man team in a dramatic men’s final at the G-Mex Centre. The host nation finished 0.725 points ahead of silver medallists Canada, with Australia back in third spot.

The former Barden High School pupil skippered his team through a faultless performance on the final piece of apparatus - the horizontal bar - to ensure the gold medal remained in English hands.

But it was his personal achievement sandwiched in-between those extraordinary occasions that has been elevated on a pedestal for Craig - a personal best score at the Greatest Show on Earth in Sydney, Australia, in 2000.

At the age of 27, Craig followed the Olympic flame to Australia as Great Britain’s only male gymnast. After an outstanding performance in six disciplines - floor, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and high bar - he finished 32nd with a score of 55.348.

“The thing that stands out for me the most isn’t my Commonwealth gold medals, which a lot of people associate me with, but it was my personal best performance in the Olympics,” beamed Craig. “That was my biggest achievement ever without doubt. I was the only male gymnast to represent Great Britain in those Olympics.

“Seven weeks before we were due to fly out to the Games I broke my hand in two places and didn’t think I was going to go. Before that I’d had some disappointments along the way when being reserve for the ‘96 Olympics in Atlanta, so prior to that success there were a lot of negatives.

“I think that made the successes after ever the more sweeter because I’d got through all those hardships. When I eventually got on the plane to Australia I was so relieved. I was 32nd in those Olympic Games. I performed and recorded a personal best. Doing your best is what’s important. I got invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen to be presented with my commemorative medal.

“I would swap every single gold medal I have won for that one medal for taking part because I did my best. That’s what’s important in sport and life. Fortunately for me wearing a leotard is what I was good at. That changed my life forever. I worked really hard and sometimes you don’t always have to have the best talent to achieve amazing things.”

And, after experiencing a vociferous and morale-boosting home crowd in Manchester in 2002, Craig believes Britain’s athletes will prosper once the Games get underway in the country’s capital.

“I don’t think our athletes that will be competing this year will realise what affect having the Games in their own country will have,” he said. “When I was in Manchester, and the Commonwealths are nowhere near as big as the Olympics, we were heading for a bronze medal yet again. But the home support was fantastic and I think that’s one of the contributing factors that led to us picking up the gold medal.

Those athletes competing in London this year will be so inspired and so motivated that they will perform far better than they ever imagined. Even though I’m retired from gymnastics now I feel really privileged to be working on the Games this year. I’m covering the gymnastics and trampolining. It’s going to be special to be part of it but I’ve got the easy job this time, there’s a lot less pressure. I feel very humble to still be involved.”