It looks graceful, but rhythmic gymnastics is all hard work, says the Scots champion Rebecca Bee. Interview Moira Gordon.
THE press and photographers are waiting as the final preparations are made. Inside the room that will serve as the interview suite, there is make-up being applied, hair being sculpted and there is glitter and glitz. It’s not a beauty pageant everyone is gathered for, it’s the naming of the Team Scotland rhythmic gymnastics team for Glasgow 2014 but presentation, glamour and poise remain integral facets.
When it comes to a sport where style and substance go hand in hand, leaping, twirling and moving as one, there is a tendency for outsiders to focus on the superficial.
“You should see us when we are training and there’s no make-up,” laughs Scottish champion Rebecca Bee. “Like every other sports person we get sweaty and disgusting but we put in all those hours of hard work so that when we do compete we can make it look effortless.”
There are detractors who belief it is just that, though. The smile on Bee’s face doesn’t waver when confronted with that observation. Bubbly, enthusiastic and unflappable, the sport is her life and has been for as long as she can remember. She states that ignorance rather than malice lies behind the views of people who see her sport as airy-fairy faffing about with ribbons and hoops and she is willing to act as an advocate, working hard to deliver the medal that may force the uninitiated to sit up and take a closer look. “It is frustrating when you hear negative comments about your sport. I think anyone would feel that way. I think it is a lack of knowledge because if they had the awareness I do then I doubt they would be saying those things. I’m really one to keep preaching about my sport and telling everyone how fantastic it is.”
In rhythmic gymnastics, unlike the artistic side of the sport, there is no balance beam, no asymmetric bars or vaulting. The competitors perform four routines to music incorporating four different pieces of apparatus: ball, club, hoop and ribbon and relies on power, core strength, grace, poise, balance, physical flexibility and rhythm, all the while emoting and expressing themselves through their body and the face.
“It is really tough and it is a very challenging sport and I think the biggest challenge is in making it look effortless. I think people sometimes have a misconception that it is easy because we go out there with a cheeky little smile on our face and they think it must be no bother but I spend 30 hours a week in the gym, do three strength and conditioning sessions, I have a ballet teacher, physiotherapist and it’s all about keeping your body at its optimum fitness so you have to be strong and supple.
“You need to be able to do all the movements required with the apparatus and perfecting that technique takes a lot of practice, you need good hand-eye co-ordination. You also have to be really ambidextrous as there is a lot of left and right-hand work; there is so much work goes into it.
“Mentally it is exhausting as well. The margin for error in my sport is miniscule. If you are spinning around several times with your leg behind your head and a hula hoop on your foot, a tiny lapse in concentration could see that go flying. Lose your focus for even half a second and you could lose everything. We have to stay mentally alert for long periods of time and on top of all the physical hard work, that can be very tiring.”
One of three members of the Scottish rhythmic squad, alongside Lauren Brash and Victoria Clow, Bee says she is relieved to have the selection formalised.
Hailing from Aberdeen, she decided to take a year out from studies to concentrate fully on this summer’s Games. On a sport scholarship at Robert Gordon University, in her home city, she has completed the first year of her Applied Sciences course but says that with a home Commonwealth Games on the horizon she didn’t want to leave anything on the mat.
“People just presumed that because I am the Scottish champion, I would definitely be there but we all had criteria to meet, which in gymnastics is scores, and I knew that I was hitting them on odd occasions but it’s only recently, in the past four months, that I have been consistently hitting them. I would never believe anything until I saw it in writing.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime [chance]. So it is fantastic. It’s my sheer dumb luck that there is a home games at the right time for me. It could have been the wrong time. I could have been 50 years old when this happened and there would be no chance or it could have been five years ago when I wouldn’t have been ready, so it is fantastic that we have the games in Scotland when I am at this level and closer to my peak. I’m so grateful for that.”
Without really knowing it, she has been working towards this all her life, though. She says she tried a few sports as a kid but having been taken along to gymnastics as a toddler by a mother who also loves the sport. There was only ever going to be one winner.
“Gosh, yeah, I suppose there was. I was always involved in dance and originally I did artistic gymnastics but I love rhythmic and the creativity in it and I love the freedom you have to express yourself. You choose your own music and choreography and it’s not all set in stone. Obviously, you are judged on technique and there is a code of points you have to adhere to but there is so much flexibility that allows you to put your own stamp on it which I really enjoy.
“It is the perfect sport for me. It combines dance and gymnastics. The music you use can be whatever suits you. Some people use more classical music, others use up-tempo, upbeat and it’s all about using music that suits your movement so you can really make it your own. It is all tailored to your strengths and your personality and very few sports have that degree of flexibility.”
A member of the Beacon Gymnastics Club, Bee comes alive when talking about her passion. For her, the sport, is all-consuming. She has already earned the credentials to judge and coach and plans a lifelong involvement. A place in the Commonwealth Games is merely the icing on the cake.
“It has absolutely been my life! It was never a given that I would be here and I don’t think my parents put me into gymnastics as a toddler thinking ‘she will be Scottish champion, she will be at the Commonwealth Games’. They have never been pushy parents. They did get carried away from time to time when they saw me win things and they’d say ‘maybe we could just do another competition, maybe another trial’ and then it got to the stage when it was just ‘wow’. So, no, I don’t think they ever imagined I would be here, at this level, looking forward to competing in a Commonwealth Games.”
Winning a medal would be the cherry on top.