By Tony James
He’s made history as the first UK gymnast to win a vault medal at the world championships. His team won gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and his bronze at the London Olympics was his country’s first for 100 years.
No wonder Kristian Thomas has the reputation of being ice cold under pressure. But even he admitted “my palms were sweating” one day during the Olympic gymnastic heats – and he wasn’t even competing.
That was the day when the Duchess of Cambridge dropped into The O2 in London during the competition. Thomas found himself sitting next to her and explaining the finer points of his sport.
“It’s not every day you speak to the future Queen,” he explains. “I was thinking: ‘What on earth am I going to talk to her about?’. I texted my mum and she said: ‘Make sure you stand up and be polite,’ – the usual mum stuff. In fact, we had a nice talk and she seemed really interested in what we were doing.”
Living for gymnastics since he was a child and completing 30 hours of training a week for years with little recognition, Kristian and his fellow Great Britain team gymnasts have found, to their surprise, that since the Olympics they’ve become celebrities.
Now he’s invited onto the pitch at Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Championship football team he has supported all his life, and has turned on the Christmas lights in his Black Country hometown of Wednesfield.
“I’ve had people who never in a million years would watch gymnastics come up to me and say: ‘We couldn’t take our eyes off what you were doing’ and that’s really nice to hear,” Thomas says. “Gymnastics, especially on the male side, has not been a well publicised sport, but now we seem to be changing people’s perceptions.”
Now an ambassador for sports nutrition specialist Multipower, Thomas says: “Their products are very beneficial to me and are an important part of my nutritional programme, particularly in the recovery process after training and competition.”
It works both ways, too, as Multipower, which has been in the sports nutrition business for more than 30 years, point out: “As passionate sports fans, we supply our sportsmen and women with packages individually tailored to their needs and in return receive valuable first-hand feedback and gain a deeper understanding of what our outstanding competitors need to perform at their peak.”
Whatever it is, Thomas has certainly found it. The day before the Duchess of Cambridge’s visit, he had the crowd roaring with the day’s highest individual score in the vault to ensure the GB men’s first podium finish since 1912.
Thomas says: “Normally you are in your own little zone when you are doing your routines, but I could hear the crowd getting louder and louder and it gave me the push I needed. The future for both men’s and women’s gymnastics looks really positive. We have come a long way in a short time.”
At the ripe old age of 26, Thomas is now the oldest member of the GB squad, but reckons he’s at his fitness peak: “When you have been doing gymnastics for as long as I have, your body does adapt, but the discipline definitely does get harder as you get older.
“On the other hand, you’ve got the experience to deal with the pressure and with unexpected situations.”
Most of Thomas’ six hours a day training is done at the gymnastics national centre in Mildenhall, where punishing workouts make an onlooker wonder just how much the human frame can stand. The g-force of a gymnast’s landing can be as high as 15, compared with the 9G a jet fighter pilot endures in combat flight.
“We don’t use weights in the gym,” Thomas explains. “All our muscle bulk is from lifting our own body weight. A lot of people from other sports are surprised by that. Gymnastics is a tough sport – after the Olympics it took me about six weeks to be able to do some of my skills again without aches and pains.”
Now in demand for promotions and as a motivational speaker, Thomas found time recently to go back to his old school for a prize-giving as the star guest.
“It was a bit weird being back,” he says. “I just wanted to get across the message that everybody has some sort of talent. Luckily I developed mine at an early age through sport. But whatever you’re good at, anything is possible, so long as you work hard and dedicate yourself to making that dream come true.”
Gymnastics, says Kristian Thomas, is not only his job, but a full-time commitment and has been for as long as he can remember. In fact, he was five when his parents suggested he went to gymnastics classes to improve his coordination and use up some of his boisterous energy.
“I was always climbing and getting into things I shouldn’t,” Thomas remembers. “They thought gymnastics might calm me down a bit. I knew almost immediately it was the one thing I wanted to do.”
Thomas entered his first competition aged eight after club coaches had picked up on his skills and encouraged him to progress. But it wasn’t until the Commonwealth Games in 2006 that he decided to make gymnastics his full-time career.
He was encouraged by his mum Catherine, a midwife, his father, Peter, a heating engineer, and his girlfriend since schooldays, Gemma Reid, who are all on the sidelines at all his events.
“Of course, we’re very proud, but it can also be nerve-wracking,” Catherine says. “In gymnastics, there’s always the risk of injury. I’m sure even Andy Murray’s mum gets nervous when he is about to compete. You just can’t help it.”
“I would drive him for training sessions before taking him to school,” Thomas’ father Peter remembers. “His teachers were always very supportive. As a teenager, he was putting more than 25 hours of training in a week, which is very hard for a young guy.
“It was like a full-time job and we are very proud of the way he stuck at it and how well he has done.”
Thomas adds: “It’s difficult when you’re a teenager and all your mates are going out and having fun and you are training six hours a day, going to bed early and being very careful about what you eat and drink.
“My family had to make sacrifices too. But particularly after the successes at the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games, all the hard work and dedication have been worth it. Since the Olympics, the sport in the UK has really taken off.
“My life has changed and so far only good things have happened. But now the hard work starts. Ever since the London Olympics, the next Games in Rio have been on the team’s radar and that’s what we’re striving for.
“Qualifying for Rio will be at this year’s world championships in Glasgow and there’s already massive competition for places in the Olympic squad. We’ll all have our work cut out to get in.”
Kristian Thomas uses Multipower Sportsfood, which is celebrating 25 years of Fit Protein.
Picture by Tom Miles.