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Interview: British Olympic gymnast Sam Oldham

Sports Mole speaks to British Olympic gymnast Sam Oldham about his ambitions for Rio 2016, his troublesome injury record and his football roots.

After suffering a career-threatening ankle injury at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Sam Oldham battled his way back to fitness to give himself a chance of making the British gymnastics team for this summer's Olympics in Rio.

The 22-year-old, who has been tested by a handful of injuries in his career so far, will be targeting medals with a GB team who made history by taking silver in the 2015 World Championships.

The Nottinghamshire-born sportsman already has an Olympic team bronze to his name, but he is determined to add more to his medal cabinet, which already includes four silvers earned at the European Championships.

Oldham recently caught up with Sports Mole to tell us of his Olympic hopes, why he turned down a potentially successful career in football and where his dedication and drive comes from.

Sam Oldham poses on the podium with his silver medal for the horizontal bar event during the European Men's Artistic Gymnastics Individual Championships in Montpellier on April 19, 2015© AFP

There are only six months to go until the Olympics. What stage are you currently at in terms of preparations?

"Right now I'm just getting into the thick of training. I'm preparing my new routines ready for the first competitions, which are coming up in the middle of March. Training is starting to get quite intense, quite tough. I'm flying out to Portugal on Saturday for a week's training and then off to Brazil for another week of training with the GB team. I'm very much in the thick of it now and things are starting to get progressively more intense as we gear up for the competition season ahead."

Are you allowing yourself to get excited about the Olympics yet or is it still a bit early to think about it?

"It's a good thing that the European Championships are coming up first because you can have that in your mind and then after that it becomes the Olympic Games. I'm definitely using it as a motivator more than anything. It's not making me nervous or getting me tense. I'm using the positive, excitement factor of it, thinking 'wow, the Olympics are six months away'. It's motivating me to work harder in the gym each day. So, it's definitely a positive for me and I know I have to take each day, each training session at a time, each competition at a time. It's something that I'm using to springboard myself into this year rather than let it be a negative and make me nervous about the prospect of the Games being six months away."

You have already had experience competing at an Olympics having won team bronze at London 2012. Are you determined to get an individual medal this time?

"First and foremost the focus will be on the team. The team always comes first - it's always the first event and the first final of the competition as well. Our main focus will be that but I want to get an individual medal. It's something that's always been a dream of mine, it's something that I've worked hard for for a long, long period of time - we are talking over a decade so it's something that I'm definitely aiming for.

"I'm working hard in the gym with my coach, but the team will come first. It gets prioritised first. You usually find that if you do well in the team event, the individual stuff will come, but I want to do the best I possibly can as an individual and for the team."

Sam Oldham competes in a qualifying round of the pommel horse event of the European Men's Artistic Gymnastics Championships on April 16, 2015© AFP

The British gymnastics team on both the men's and women's side are in good shape at the moment. Do you think that there is more pressure on the team to medal in Rio because of recent success?

"I think after London 2012 there was always going to be that expectation. We felt that pretty much straight away. As soon as we went to a major championships we felt that everyone expected us to come back with medals. It's a great position to be in, though. We weren't in that position before and now other countries look at us as real threats and real challengers for the top honours in gymnastics so it's definitely a bonus. It means that the judges and the other teams are looking out for us - they're nervous.

"I think if we use it in the right way it's definitely a bonus, but there's that expectation that now we're one of the top teams in the world. We're relishing that, though, and really taking that on as opposed to thinking of it as a pressure and as a negative. We're thinking, 'well it's great to be considered one of the best teams in the world' - we can use that to our advantage."

You mentioned you're all relishing the pressure - is that the same for Max Whitlock? A lot of eyes will be on him in Rio after winning World Championship gold on the pommel horse.

"Yeah, there will be a lot of pressure on Max, but I think the great thing about it is because the team is so strong we can always take that pressure away from him a little bit. For us, our strength is the strength in depth. With the amount of guys challenging for spots on the Olympic team it's going to be incredibly tough just to make it. In some cases in major championships in the last four years it's been harder to make the team than it has once you've got out there to the championships.

"There's obviously going to be a lot of pressure on Max's shoulders as he's done incredibly well over the last cycle but hopefully we can take that pressure off him a little bit. We've all been there. We were there at the last Olympic Games and the other guys coming through have been there and competed so hopefully that burden's not going to fall solely on his shoulders."

Max Whitlock of England prepares to compete on the parallel bars during day two of the Commonwealth Games men's artistic gymnastics team final on July 29, 2014© Getty Images

I think it is fair to say that your career so far has been full of highs and lows. You were not risked at the World Championships because of injury. Was it tough having to watch your teammates from the sidelines?

"For me, it was a lot tougher the year before. [Missing] the 2014 World Championships was really tough for me. I was in incredible shape going into the Commonwealth Games, probably the best shape that I have been in in my career so far. That was tougher to take and being bed-bound and unable to walk didn't help either! That was a hard one for me, I didn't really watch that championships, but this one, I knew it was the best decision for me at the time. I didn't want to go out there and risk this year. My ultimate goal is the Olympic Games. I'm going to be 23 in the peak of my career and hoping to put out my best possible performances to date so I didn't want to put that at risk.

"I knew it was the right decision so it was a bit easier for me to take. Also, I've trained with these guys, some of them, since I was eight years old, so there's never any resentment, you always want your friends and your teammates to do well and you just want to do well with them. You never want them not to perform well and you to perform well - it's not that. You want to share the success so it was great watching them get the medal in Glasgow and it was a great spectacle for the sport. It's helped raise the profile of gymnastics even more in the country."

Let's go back to the Commonwealth Games when you suffered an ankle ligament injury. It is crushing to get injured anyway, let alone get injured during a competition. What went through your mind at that stage?

"It was a lot of emotions! I can remember actually thinking, 'can I land? Can I go back out and do parallel bars?' My head was a bit all over the place. I was in shock. The pain didn't kick in for about 20 minutes. The doctors and the physios asked me if I wanted any pain killers and I said 'no I'll be fine', but after 20 minutes I was saying, 'yes give me something because this is killing!'.

"It was a really strange period. It was a lot to take in. Initially I had x-rays to check if there were any breaks, and there were no significant breaks so when you get told that, you think it's going to be okay, but then the MRI came back and showed that I had no ligaments left so it was a big shock. It was really hard for me to take and for me to understand what was happening. I rang my mum and dad and just got out of there. It was a tough period for me. It took me so long to build myself up to that point of being in the best shape of my life but I'm lucky enough to have a great support team around me - my family, my parents, my coach, my friends and Sky Sports. That definitely contributed to me getting back so fast, just having a strong support team around me."

Gymnast Sam Oldham is helped onto the top of the podium by England teammates Kristian Thomas and Louis Smith, with Max Whitlock and Nile Wilson watching on, after they won team gold in the Commonwealth Games on July 29, 2014© Getty Images

What about your mindset during that time? You have had a few injuries so how do you keep building yourself back up, mentally more than anything?

"It's difficult, each injury is different. [The ankle injury at Glasgow 2014] was definitely very, very hard. I got injured in 2011 at the World Championships. I went into that with a broken collarbone and tore my pec in the competition as well. I had to have two months off training doing absolutely nothing. I can remember vividly doing my first forward roll on December 19, 2011 and then half a year later I made the Olympic team. That was the toughest thing I've ever done in my life, making the Olympics from scratch. At the time I was only 18, I was a baby pretty much and knowing that I did that under those circumstances gave me a lot of confidence that I could do it again.

"I knew it was going to be tough. I was told it was a career-threatening injury. People wouldn't have put too much money on me getting back so quickly! My mentality has always been, though, to work incredibly hard. One of my biggest downfalls is that I over-train and work too hard and tire myself out, so doing the training and getting back wasn't ever going to be an issue. I stuck to my rehab religiously, I was doing it eight hours a day and I just managed to get myself back as quick as I possibly could. I knew that the quicker I got back, the better chance I had of making the Olympic team in six months' time, so I had that in the back of my mind and used that when I was struggling to motivate myself."

Was there not a bit of nervousness when you got back on the apparatus after you had been out for a while?

"Not really, I was excited! One of the best things that came from the injury was how much I need gymnastics and how much I missed it. I complain and I moan about it a lot of the time but having that injury and having gymnastics taken away from me, it made me realise for the first time in a really long time why I do it. I realised that I do enjoy it, I love it and getting that back was so exciting for me. I can remember being really, really happy and being motivated every time I did something new, especially the first time I jumped over the vault, it was a great feeling. I didn't look back and just ploughed on through."

At the moment what apparatus are you trying to improve on and what steps have you taken to do that?

"My main apparatus where I feel I can contribute best to the team is the high bar, the pommel horse, the parallel bars and the rings. My floor is getting better and I'm working on a routine that's as difficult as it was before I got injured at the Commonwealth Games, so that's a big step forward that I made over the Christmas period. I've put a lot of graft into getting my ankles strong enough to do that so for me, the focus is the all-round - that's what I wanted to do since I was a little kid. The focus is the all-round, but then I know I've got key events where I can help the team out a lot. The key events are going to be the high bar, the pommel horse, the rings and the parallel bars."

Sam Oldham competes in a qualifying round of the rings event of the European Men's Artistic Gymnastics Championships on April 16, 2015© AFP

I read that you joined Notts County when you were younger but you decided to pursue gymnastics instead of football. How did you come to that decision?

"That was tough. When I was a youngster, football was in the family - my granddad was a pro at County, my dad was at Nottingham Forest and I started playing football just a bit before I started gymnastics. I signed a four-year contract at Notts County [when I was 12], but it got to a point where I couldn't do both of the sports anymore. I'd already started competing for GB in gymnastics and I just decided that that's what I wanted to do. I'd already given up so much at that point - I was training for 35 to 40 hours a week in the gym and I decided that I didn't want to waste that. Gymnastics was what I wanted to do.

"My family were never pushy despite our football background. They let me make my own decision and completely supported me. Fortunately for me, it turned out to be the right one! It was a tough decision at the time, but I was doing 40 hours in the gym, my day off was on Sunday and that's when I'd play a match for County. I was training 7am until 9am in the morning, go to school, straight from school to the gym, train for three-and-a-half hours in the gym, my grandma would pick me up and take me to football. I wouldn't get home until about 9pm and sometimes I had homework so I was just knackered. It got too much so I had to make a decision."

Do you ever sometimes wonder, though, what might have been?

"Well, I still love football and I still joke around and say 'once I've finished gym I'm going to play semi-pro', so yeah I do and I still love it, but football's one of those sports that you can still be involved with and you can follow a lot. Also, my brother's playing, he's still trying to make it - he's actually out in America now on trial for a team - so I'm still involved that way. I do miss it but I'm lucky enough that I can't really escape football so I'm able to follow it. My Sky mentor is Geoff Shreeves, and I'm a United fan, so he's taken me to a few games and I've been behind the scenes and met some people. It's really cool that I'm involved in that way as well."

As you mentioned you're part of the Sky Scholars scheme but other gymnasts who don't have that backing, how difficult is it to get funding and all that extra support?

"It can be very difficult. I'm incredibly lucky that I was selected to be part of a scholarship team. Going back to my injury, I was able to use what's called a Game Ready machine. It's an icing and compression machine that's pretty expensive and I was able to use it every day, I would even sleep in it. I contribute that to how fast I was able to get back competing. If I wasn't in the Sky scholarship scheme I couldn't afford a machine like that to help me recover, so it's amazing that I've got their support. Gymnastics is one of those sports that isn't making incredible amounts of money so the younger guys coming up or the guys who haven't quite made it, it's very difficult for them. It's hard but you have to keep pushing through and try your best to get on the team and get the results that secure your funding or sponsorships, but I'm very lucky to have Sky's backing and it's something that's definitely helped me get to the point I'm at now. I'm in a great position starting the Olympic year."

What do you hope to have achieved by this time next year?

"Honestly, if I can look back and say I did everything I possibly could, to have made the team, to come away with no regrets - I live my life a little bit like that. The only way to do that is to train as hard as I possibly can. I want to look back and be satisfied with what I've done this year - I'll be happy enough with that. For me the target has always been the Olympic Games. Obviously if I didn't make it I'd be incredibly gutted, but if I don't make it and I've done everything possible to do that but get beaten by better person, I know I'll have to hold my hands up. I know, though, that I'm going to give it absolutely everything to make sure that I have a ticket on that plane and I thoroughly believe that I'm going to be there on that team fighting for medals in Rio."

Sam Oldham is supported by the Sky Academy Sports Scholarship scheme, helping young athletes fulfil their potential on the international stage and achieve their goals for Rio 2016: skysports.com/scholarship

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Louis Smith of England celebrates after completing his pommel horse routine for the Commonwealth Games men's artistic gymnastics team final at Glasgow's SSE Hydro on July 28, 2014
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