For Kristian Thomas, there has never been a better summer. The 23-year-old gymnast, born and bred in Wednesfield, was part of the Team GB Mens’ Gymnastics team whose bronze medal at the London Olympics was the first in the competition for precisely 100 years. Some going! Well Kristian, who attended St Edmund’s School next door to Wolves’ Compton training ground, was one of the guests of honour at Saturday’s match with Sheffield Wednesday when he joined other Midlands’ Olympians and Paralympians pitchside at half time to show off his bronze medal. He recently visited Compton to meet the Wolves players and have a chat with fellow Wulfrunian and club captain Karl Henry for an article for Saturday’s programme, a fuller version of which is reproduced below.
*First of all gentlemen, how far away from each other would you have been brought up?
KH: I was in Ashmore Park and Kristian was in Wednesfield so about five minutes apart maybe?
KT: I’d say so. When I came to St Edmund’s next door to the training ground I used to catch the bus from outside the Ashmore pub every day. There were quite a few of us from St Patrick’s Primary School who came on the bus to St Edmunds.
KH: I went to St Albans Primary School and then Coppice. Did you not get roughed up on our estate then Kristian?
KT: Ha ha no I didn’t! There was a bit of rivalry because lads from St Peter’s across the road also got on the same bus but it was all o-k!
KH: To be fair I’m only joking. People think Ashmore Park is a bad estate but it was fine. It was a nice council estate to grow up on. I think there’s another link as well because Mr Perkins was my Wolverhampton Schools coach for a time.
KT: Yes he was my PE teacher at St Edmunds. He’s still there now. I saw him a couple of weeks ago when I was back at the school for their presentation evening.
*And Kristian, do you follow Wolves’ fortunes?
KT: When I was very young I had an older cousin who I looked up to and he was a Manchester United Season Ticket Holder. So I followed them and had the shirt! But as I got older I saw the light and suddenly asked myself why it was that I was a United fan! Particularly when I was at St Edmund’s and saw Wolves training and all my mates were Wolves fans I asked myself what I’d been doing! I started supporting the club although it was always difficult to get to games because I’d be involved in competitions or training at the weekends. I always follow the results though.
*Let’s cut to the chase then. The Olympics. A bronze medal. Did you head into the competition expecting success?
KT: As I team I think we felt we had the potential to be in the top five. After the qualification event we finished third which made us more positive. But in those sorts of events you have to stay grounded and not get too excited because a lot can happen out there. In gymnastics it’s not all about adrenalin – you have to be able to control it and not look too far ahead. We went out and tried to play it all down, thinking of it as a controlled competition and not getting too carried away that it was the Olympics. But as soon as we started going through the competition, when we knew were doing well, the crowd got right behind us and were almost like our sixth team member. One of our lads had made a mistake and I was next on. The crowd got right behind me and it was a fantastic experience doing that last floor routine. I think we knew we’d got the potential to win a medal but doing it was a completely different matter!
KH: Did the coaches put you under any pressure?
KT: They were the opposite to be fair. They wanted us to be relaxed and go out and enjoy it and have fun. That helped us because when we have had competitions before when we’ve been expected to do well and have sometimes ended up messing it up. Reverse psychology is sometimes what is needed!
*There must have been more pressure on you going out for that last routine after the mistake beforehand? Just over 60 seconds – make or break!
KT: Definitely. I knew if I didn’t go through and do well we wouldn’t have a chance of getting a medal. We finished with the floor and I was the very last one out there. So I knew the pressure would be on before the routine and it was a bit daunting but I was delighted to come through.
KH: I was actually watching on the television and getting really into it but hadn’t realised Kristian was from Wolves at the time. I was really excited by it. Normally I’m not massively patriotic which has always been a big subject because my friend Jonah (David Jones) is crazily patriotic. When we’d be watching sport, whatever it was, he’d be like ‘Come on England’ or ‘Come on Britain’. But I remember watching that gymnastics and being really pleased that you got a medal. And I also felt really proud that the whole Olympics went so well. It’s almost like we were all expecting a hiccup of some sort but it just went really well and was great to watch.
KT: I had people coming up to me afterwards telling me they were shouting at the TV and criticising the Japanese for putting in the appeal that meant they got the silver and we got the bronze. But it’s all sport at the end of the day! Everyone gets really patriotic supporting their country.
*How did you find the reaction to it all afterwards?
KT: We were quite lucky because we were the only medal winners on that day and got a lot of publicity! And it had been 100 years since the last team medal in gymnastics. So we ended up with a lot more media attention than we ever thought we would! We finished the competition and then on the night we had to all the interviews. We got back to our rooms at 1am but were still buzzing with it all and couldn’t get to sleep. Then we had to be up at 6 for all the morning interviews! Me and Louis Smith had to compete again in individual events the following day. It has certainly been different. I went on holiday to Cyprus with my girlfriend Gemma and there were a lot of British people in the hotel so I did get recognised a bit. But it’s all been really positive and I’ve not had anyone being critical or anything! I’m sure there will be something along the way and I’ll just have to be a bit more careful about what I do or what I say. And I even got my Nando’s free in Bentley Bridge the other day! I went up to order and they just said they would give it me for nothing so that was 28 quid I saved!
KH: Nando’s is so good! I think it’s different for a footballer and the attention because going into the spotlight is a gradual process where you come through and get into the first team. For Kristian, doing well at the Olympics and suddenly finding himself in big demand – and rightly so – it must all be a bit crazy! As I’m sure loads of people have said, it’s when you don’t get the attention that maybe you start to worry as that means you are not having the success. It must have been such a massive occasion at the Olympics – when did you first start thinking about trying to compete there?
KT: About six years ago. When you are a junior you just think about junior competitions like the Junior Europeans. Then the Commonwealth Games in 2006 were in Melbourne when, to my surprise, I made the team. It was a different ball game and I was competing against the seniors. It was a fantastic experience being in the village and just made me realise how much I wanted to do it and make a career out of it. It was about then I realised this is what I wanted to do – it was a turning point.
*Karl, can you imagine a one-off game which in any way compares to that sort of pressure. The Olympics. Chance of a medal. The final routine?
KH: It’s impossible. A league is a true reflection over a season and if we had a bad game we’ve always got another one to follow. When we got promoted it was gradual again with so many games and I’ve never really gone too far in one-off cup competitions. Probably the big high-pressure game was Blackburn on the final day when we needed to stay in the Premier League.
KT: I remember watching that one – I was really nervous!
KH: That’s probably the one we’ve had that was make or break. And we broke. But still stayed up. I can’t even comprehend what you go through at an event which is once every four years having worked so hard.
KT: That’s what makes the Olympics so special I think. And the fact it was in Great Britain made it even more special.
*How much training do you generally do Kristian?
KT: It’s usually maybe 30 hours a week, with one day off. I’ll do a three-and-a-half hour session in the morning, have a couple of hours break, and then two or three hours in the afternoon. I still train where I always have, at Earl’s Gymnastics Club in Halesowen, but spend a lot of time at Lilleshall where the national coaches are. We have European and World Championships every year so we have to peak for those each year as well. Then there are the Commonwealth games in a couple of years in Glasgow which is a big event and then hopefully it’s Rio for the next Olympics in 2016.
KH: Our sport sounds much more enjoyable when it comes to training than gymnastics. Even when our training is hard work you are with a bunch of other players and it is enjoyable whereas Kristian’s work sounds so focused all the time.
KT: There are times when we do have downtime as well. This year we were lucky enough to go to Cancun for a training camp and we do get free time so there are perks. And there are times in the year when I can chill out a bit more. But I’ve had that chillout time now and need to get back in the gym, back into shape and losing a few kilos.
KH: Have your parents had to sacrifice a lot?
KT: A massive amount. Going to Halesowen where I train was an hour’s journey each way and we were doing that four, five, six nights a week when I was at school. It probably wasn’t until I learned to drive myself that I realised how much they had actually sacrificed for me along with my younger sister Rebecca who had to come along too! I owe them so much but hopefully they also got their reward by seeing me get the medal.
KH: I’d say so! I think we as footballers seem to get so much more recognition for being maybe a bit average at times! For Kristian, in a major competition like this it’s such a pressurised occasion. It’s great to get a medal but if they’d finished 4th or something after all that work it must be very difficult to go away with nothing to show for it. There are such fine lines between the winning positions.
KT: If we’d been fourth I think we’d have had some attention but probably as being the nearly men! It was great to get the medal not only for us but also to try and raise the profile of the sport. Gymnastics, especially on the men’s side, isn’t very big in Britain at all but hopefully this might help changing that a little bit. The more people that get involved in a sport the more talent there is to choose from and that’s better for the country.
*You also ended up with some media attention chatting to Kate Middleton she came to sit with you to watch an event?
KT: I was watching Louis and Max in the pommel final minding my own business and then security came over and asked if I’d mind if Kate Middleton sat in the spare seat next to me. At first I thought that would be fine but then she didn’t arrive for about 20 minutes and I started thinking ‘what am I going to say’? I got a bit nervous and was shaking the sweat off my hand because I knew I would have to shake her hand. But she was great and was chatting away about how the scoring system worked in gymnastics and was really enthusiastic about it all. She’d been there watching the team competition when we won the medal along with Prince William and Prince Harry.
*That’s some going! Who’s the most famous person you’ve met Karl?
KH: It's certainly not any royalty! I’d probably stick with football and say it would be Stanley Matthews when I was at Stoke. What a legend. I got him to sign a piece of paper but when I got home the trousers were put in the wash. I was gutted!
*Sticking with football Kristian, did you ever play?
KT: I used to a bit, for a team called Spring Vale in the Bilston League. I was a centre back. Quite a few of my mates from Primary School played as well and I enjoyed it but it got to the stage where the matches on a Sunday clashed with my training. And if I’d got injured I’d have lost my chance so I had to call it a day.
*And gymnastics for you Karl? We’ve just seen you try something out in the gym? Kristian – what do you reckon?
KT: I’d give him a ten for effort that’s for sure.
KH: You mean the execution wasn’t very good?
KT: You didn’t point the toes out so I’d mark you down for that!
*Finally then, two Wulfrunians who have had success in your chosen careers. Does it make you proud to represent your home city?
KT: It does. I still live in the area and feel proud if I have made people from Wolverhampton happy.. It’s always good to have footballers playing for Wolves who are from Wolverhampton and anyone who is successful. It can only be a good thing for the city.
KH: Agreed. When I saw Kristian was from Wolverhampton I thought it was brilliant. I’ve always said how proud I have been to play for my hometown club and be captain as well. When people ask what good has come out of Wolverhampton we can say Kristian has as well now!