Do you thing you’re too old to learn gymnastics? Writer Danielle de Wolfe joined a body-positive gymnastics class for adults and found anyone can learn to tumble regardless of age, experience or flexibility.
As a child, I was never the ‘gymnastics kid’. I dabbled in ballet for a while, skipping around the kitchen in pink satin shoes and an oversized tutu. But I clearly wasn’t destined to go far. “Kick your leg higher!” my teacher would plead. I stood, hand gently resting on the bar, feeling both frustrated and utterly dejected. Even back then, my lack of flexibility was clear to see.
That’s precisely why I never once considered taking up gymnastics. It was as much of a mental barrier as a physical one. At 5’11”, my height doesn’t exactly make me prima ballerina material – nor, for that matter, does it make me ideally proportioned to become a superstar gymnast.
Former Team USA gymnast and seven-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles stands at 4’8”. Her petite but muscular frame exudes power, while her low centre of gravity adds stability and balance. Look back at the list of gymnasts who have snatched an Olympic gold since 1976, and the average height comes in at a mere 4’11”.
So, when I was invited down to what claimed to be a ‘body positive gymnastics’ class, it’s safe to say that I was equal parts intrigued and sceptical. The thought of having to wear a skin-tight leotard filled me with fear – exacerbated by the fact the class was being run by former elite British gymnast Claire Heafford.
“I was coached by the first Russian gymnast who was brought over to the UK,” she explains. “I grew up in a Soviet training camp situated in the heart of the home counties – and it was brutal.” It’s an experience the coach says fundamentally shaped her, both as an individual and the way that she teaches.
“I didn’t want to do gymnastics for a long time,” Heafford admits, describing the process of gaining her coaching qualification as both “traumatising” and “triggering”.
“I waited until I could find a way to do it differently. [Teaching body-positive gymnastics] is an antidote to the way that I was taught.”
THE GROWING POPULARITY OF GYMNASTICS for adults
I’ve long thought of gymnastics as an elitist sport – and in many ways, Heafford’s personal experience of extreme discipline and coercion only served to perpetuate this stereotype. However, in recent years, we’ve seen giant steps taken within the world of gymnastics, primarily at a coaching level, with the aim of creating long-term change. Heafford, in many respects, represents this change at a grassroots level.
Starting life in a Bethnal Green railway arch before moving to Woolwich, Reset LAB’s gymnastics classes are specifically aimed at adults. A huge space containing all manner of inflatable mats, ramps and rings, the warehouse feels like a giant adult playground. Part of a recent wave of non-gym-based workouts that combine fitness with childlike play, it’s an increasingly popular workout thanks in part to the non-judgmental environment.
“I wanted to try something that was about play, but also about strength,” says Hannah, 39, who has attended classes sporadically since the end of lockdown. She says the lack of pressure to attend on a weekly basis, combined with the friendly environment, is all part of the draw.
“They used to do a ‘less than beginners’ class that was very inclusive and welcoming. It explicitly said: ‘If you’re bad at sports and don’t think of yourself as a skinny, strong person, this is for you’. Claire brings that to all the lessons.”
It’s a view seconded by 74-year-old Chris, a former technical salesman, who’s quick to declare he’s “not exactly a flipper or anything”.
“Four years ago I was 90 kilos of fat,” he recounts, noting that three months in rehab for alcohol dependence turned his life around. “When I came out, I was clean – just like I am now. When I came out, it was almost like ‘I gotta keep going, I’ve got to look for the next adventure!’ I even took up stilt walking.” He’s now in love with gymnastics.
Inclusivity is at the heart of adult gymnastics
The ages of those taking part in the class range from early 20s to mid-70s, alongside encompassing all manner of nationalities and gender identities. The diversity of participants stands as testament to the warmth and patience of not only Heafford, but every individual taking part. That diversity also helps with prioritising enjoyment and incremental goals ahead of pressure to perform.
“It’s all levels – even if you just want to come and practice cartwheels,” smiles Jenai, one of the class’s youngest participants.
Although private one-to-one coaching is available, Heafford restricts the twice-weekly classes to a maximum of 12 people. It’s a number that allows for feedback, personal goals and a healthy “working relationship” with all attendees according to the coach. It’s also precisely what attracted Chris, 44, to the classes.
A far cry from his day job in an art gallery, Chris – who now has four classes under his belt, says his interest was initially peaked by Heafford’s in-house wrestling classes. “A lot of [classes] took place in gyms that potentially had a macho atmosphere – or that’s what I’d heard from other people who had done them,” he says, having found that Heafford’s sessions were different.
“I learn through encouragement and positive reinforcement,” he explains, going on to say that in the past, coming across excessively macho forms of fitness instruction had hindered his progress in the past. An amateur field hockey player whose constant injuries saw him “struggle with flexibility”, Chris describes the classes as having “a positive, affirming atmosphere”.
“The first session, I went from nothing to doing a somersault, and that level of progress comes from the way Claire breaks it down. The way she teaches is so pedagogically sound, it’s amazing what you can do after a single class”.
The mind-body connection is key to tumbling safely
It quickly becomes clear that gymnastics is as much about pushing mental boundaries as it is physical in this class. When asked to take turns to fall backwards onto an inflatable mat from the height of a metre or so, a number of participants freeze. This seemingly insignificant fall shows the way in which your mind can easily take over, fighting against the prospect of physical danger.
It’s something Danielle, who travels all the way from west London, knows all too well. A bioneuroemocion practitioner by day, she’s used to finding the root cause of emotional conflicts as a means of improving your wellbeing.
Describing the “mind-body factor” as a key draw of the class, it’s something the 42-year-old says she “really admires” about Heafford’s work. Danielle says that her love of American gymnast Chellsie Memmel, and the news stories surrounding her comeback, are her inspiration for trying out gymnastics.
It’s fair to say Memmel’s story stands as testament to female drive and determination. A former gymnastic World Champion, her journey back to competition at the age of 32 took the world by storm. Taking time out of the sport following the birth of her two children, the athlete’s tale is considered by many to be remarkable.
“I thought: ‘If she can do it, I can definitely give it a go!’ You have this limiting belief that you’re either too old to do something or too adult,” says Danielle. “I just wanted to do it for fun and do something that would bring me joy.”
It’s a common thread that links so many of the class’s participants: the joy of combining fitness and fun – no matter your age – is testament to Heafford’s teaching style. Swapping cliche images of pushy parents for a gaggle of excited adults, this is most definitely a class designed to overcome mental hurdles.
Images: Rob Brazier