DAN Keatings’ timing is immaculate. Just as British gymnastics goes into overdrive with more success than ever before, the 24-year-old Kettering-born Scot rises to the challenge. Just as a new generation of precocious talent emerges, together with a forthcoming reality television show, he jumps on the bandwagon with a stunning gold-medal performance.
Even to the untrained eye, his display on the pommel horse at the Hydro yesterday afternoon was among the Scottish highlights of these remarkable Commonwealth Games. In a thrilling showdown with Louis Smith, erstwhile poster boy of the sport in Britain, as well as Max Whitlock, heir to the throne, Keatings produced an ambitious, breathtaking routine, and absolutely nailed it.
The superlatives quickly flowed. Beth Tweddle, who is about to star on Tumble, the BBC’s new celebrity gymnastic challenge, said it was the performance of Keatings’ life. Paul Hall, the Scotland team coach, described it as a world-class display against world-class athletes in a final fit for the Olympic Games. Smith suggested that it could be the start of something big for his Great Britain team-mate.
If Glasgow 2014 is any guide, the sport is booming on these islands. Earlier yesterday, Whitlock won his third gold medal of the Games thanks to victory in the floor final. Claudia Fragapane, his 16-year-old English team-mate, matched that tally with a triumph on the vault. England have won 13 gymnastics medals here. Wales have won nine.
Scotland, for their part, have tapped into the phenomenon with an unprecedented four. Keatings’ gold followed his silver medals in the team and all-around finals. At the end of yesterday’s spectacular session of individual climaxes, his colleague, Dan Purvis, added a bronze in the rings. Only four other Scottish gymnasts have won medals at the Commonwealth Games: Steve Frew took gold for his performance on the rings in 2002, while Adam Cox, Barry Collie and Jo Walker have won bronze. All of which makes Keatings comfortably the most decorated Scot to grace this stage.
“Really?” he blurted out in a breathless aftermath. “I didn’t know that. Wow… wow. I’m really proud.”
Keatings qualifies to represent Scotland through his father, who is from Edinburgh. That was doubtless going through his mind as he was presented with his medal by Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex. So, too, were the struggles he has overcome in an injury-blighted career, as well as the Glasgow crowd that raised the Hydro roof.
“Everyone was singing and I just felt so happy, so proud,” he said. “I was just so overjoyed and overwhelmed with the whole experience and the atmosphere. Max and Louis Smith are two amazing competitors. To be ahead of them was just amazing. Max has been winning all of the golds so far so I’m just glad that I’ve managed to nick one from him. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. I’m sure it will later on. I am just ecstatic.”
It has been a demanding week, physically and mentally, for these gymnasts. Keatings admitted he was tired when he woke up yesterday morning, but there was no sign of it in his performance. Drawn ahead of Smith and Whitlock, he chose a hugely demanding routine, and pulled it off. He was smiling before he landed, but not as much as he was when 16.058 flashed up on the scoreboard. Whitlock, with an almost-as-brilliant 15.966, had to settle for silver, while Smith took bronze.
“I was up first out of the three of us and I just knew I needed to hit it as well as I could and put up a good score,” said Keatings. “That put the pressure on Louis and Max. I’m just glad I made it past the 16 mark and it meant they needed to get through their routines as well as they could with the pressure on them. I felt so sorry for Louis as he managed to get through almost his whole routine and just didn’t get it right at the end. It was a great competition. We all have high standards, so the gold could have gone to any one of us.”
Paul Hall, his coach, was no less thrilled by the battle that had just unfolded among three men who are friends, rivals and Great Britain team-mates. “That was incredible,” he said. “That was a final that wouldn’t be out of place in two years’ time in Rio. They are three of the world’s best performers on the pommel horse. There was such a big risk. All of them were doing routines of immense difficulty. The pressure was on. It’s one of the best finals I’ve ever seen on a pommel horse. Unbelievable.”
Smith, his head buried in a T-shirt, was in the zone when Keatings was on the horse, which is probably just as well, for it would only have put him off. The London 2012 silver and bronze medallist, who has since transcended the sport with a little help from Strictly Come Dancing, showered praise on his Huntingdon club-mate.
“Dan is an extremely talented gymnast who has had a hard time dealing with injuries, then missing out on the Olympics. It would have been hard mentally to come back. So he’s been very up and down, bless him, but I’ve trained with him all my life. Everyone in Great Britain knows of his potential so it’s just about working on that consistency and I think this is the start for him.”
Purvis too is going from strength to strength. After narrowly missing out on a medal in the all-around final, the 23-year-old Liverpudlian, whose mother is from Dundee, finished behind Scott Morgan and Kevin Lytwyn, both of Canada, in the rings.
He has the chance to add to his tally in today’s parallel bars final, as does Keatings in the high bars. “Hopefully I can just do the routine I have been doing for the last couple of days and we’ll see where it takes me,” said Keatings, who has already come a long, long way.