IN A discipline better known for its aesthetic qualities, Daniel Keatings has shown courage, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness to carve out the career that culminated yesterday in his second silver medal of these Commonwealth Games.
With a gut-wrenching, nerve-racking final routine on the high bar, the 24-year-old Scottish gymnast held off a challenge by Nile Wilson, the young Englishman, to finish second in the artistic individual all-round final.
Max Whitlock, of England, won the gold medal at a canter, while his compatriot, Wilson, took bronze in his first year as a senior gymnast, but it was Keatings – who helped Scotland to win silver in the team final 24 hours earlier – that was the feelgood story of the day.
His career has been so blighted by injury, most notably ahead of London 2012, when his absence forced him to consider quitting the sport, that it is a wonder he is here at all, never mind walking off with – at least – two medals. As he has said all week, these are his Olympic Games.
“It’s amazing, especially after how much I’ve been plagued with injury,” he said. “I haven’t done a major all-around international in over two years now so it’s great to come back here, do an all-around and get a medal in front of my home crowd.”
Born in Kettering, to an Edinburgh father, Keatings has a rather Scottish tendency to do things the hard way. His uncharacteristically poor display on the parallel bars yesterday, before fighting back when it mattered most, was a bit like a career that has taken him to hell and back.
Keatings has fallen off his horse – and we’re not talking pommel here – so many times that you wonder why he still bothers. Take, for instance, his first Commonwealth Games, in Melbourne eight years ago, which were ended when a tumble on the floor had him struggling to walk. After trying – and failing – to mount the pommel, he was taken from the arena in a wheelchair, diagnosed with three spinal stress fractures and forced to embark on a long a period of rehabilitation.
Then there was the anterior cruciate ligament that had to be reconstructed four years later, and the damaged ankle that cost him his place at the 2012 Olympics. Keatings, who had represented Great Britain at Beijing in 2008, felt that he had proved his fitness ahead of those Games – with two gold medals in the British Championships – but the selectors did not agree.
He was so distraught that he resolved to retire from the sport, a decision that he reversed only after a heart-to-heart with his coach, Paul Hall. “I was so disappointed not to make the Olympics and we had a big chat,” said Keatings. “Paul sat me down and I did think about finishing the sport, but he persuaded me to stay. I’m so glad I did. I owe a lot to him. In my mind, I was pretty certain I was going to finish then Paul changed my mind. I quit the all-around and came back and did the pieces I enjoyed. And then gradually I started getting four routines back together – and the vault – and I was really happy.”
He admits that he could never have foreseen a day like yesterday. He never imagined that he would recover so well from a setback that tested his mental strength to the limit. “I was just thinking about finishing because of the disappointment, but your disappointments make you stronger, they really do. It got me in the gym and working even harder than I was before.”
This was quite a day, not just for Scottish gymnastics, but for the sport as a whole. Whitlock was so good that some suggested he was trying out a few routines for the forthcoming World Championships in China. Wilson, just 19, demonstrated his enormous potential with a performance that pushed Keatings every step of the way. All were cheered on by Louis Smith, the Strictly Come Dancing champion who won a gold medal with England in the team event. At one stage, Smith was captured on the big screen, performing air guitar.
Keatings is a British team-mate of the Englishmen, which added another dimension to the competition. Although Whitlock was in control from start to finish, the battle for silver was compelling, especially after the Scot produced a wobbly display on the parallel bars.
That left he and Wilson with only the high bar to complete. Having occupied second place throughout the session, suddenly Keatings was in danger of being overtaken at the death. It was gymnastics’ answer to squeaky-bum time, as he later confessed.
“I was shaking the whole way through it,” he said. “I don’t actually remember half of it anymore. I just remember thinking ‘I’d better not fall off now’ but I’m glad I landed the dismount and it was more of a relief than anything.”
While Whitlock stunned a few with his 90.631 total, Keatings can be proud of his 88.298. The way they, and others from the Scottish and English teams, congratulated each other throughout the session spoke volumes for the respect between them.
“We maybe compete as Scotland and England, but we compete together as Great Britain as well, so we are the best of friends,” said Keatings. “It was great to see [Whitlock] do so well and finally break the 90 barrier.”
Dan Purvis and Frank Baines, also of Scotland, finished fourth and sixth respectively. They and Keatings, together with Adam Cox, have qualified for some of the individual finals, which will be contested today and tomorrow.
Keatings has opportunities in the floor, the pommel and the high bar to add to his medal tally. If he could somehow supplement his two silvers with a gold, it would crown the most remarkable week for him and for Scottish gymnastics.
“I came here hoping to get a team medal. We got a silver. I was hoping to finish in the top five all-around and I came second. So everything is just a bonus at the moment. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this.”