Five years after cheering Max Whitlock to Olympic glory in Rio’s Arena Olimpica, Joe Fraser’s unorthodox and lockdown-defying training techniques have earned him the opportunity to emulate his team-mate in Tokyo.
Fraser was a wide-eyed teenager when he went to Brazil as part of the British Olympic Association’s Ambition Programme, and was suitably inspired to go on to claim an unexpected world gold medal on the parallel bars in Stuttgart in 2019.
Now 22, Fraser’s imaginative training methods have enabled him to maintain his momentum and earn a place alongside Whitlock, Giarnni Regini-Moran and James Hall in the four-man men’s gymnastics team for the upcoming Games.
Fraser revealed: “I had 13 weeks out of the gym because of lockdown, which is the longest time I’ve ever had away from the sport since I was five years old.
“I had a pommel horse in my parents’ bedroom, which I’m sure they loved, and I had a set of rings which I tied to a tree at a local reservoir.
“I did what I could to stay gymnastics-fit and I feel like I reaped the benefits. This is something I’ve been training for for 17 years and the thought of going to Tokyo fills me with joy.”
Obsessed with the sport from a young age, Fraser can trace the source of his inspiration back to Louis Smith’s pommel medals at the Beijing and London Games, before Whitlock emphatically upped the ante with his triple medal haul – including two golds – in Rio.
The following year marked Fraser’s emergence as he won the all-around title at the British Championships, and Fraser credited Whitlock with being a major force in his continued development towards Tokyo.
“Rio inspired me massively and over the last five years it’s really made me feel like if I can train as hard as possible, it’s really doable,” added Fraser.
“Having seen someone who is so close in the system achieve what he did, it really did make me feel that I could also do it. I truly believe the experience of being in Rio has shaped me into the person I am today.
“Having Max on the squad has been incredible over the last 10 years. I remember watching him as a junior and thinking: ‘I want to be like Max’, and it’s amazing to actually be in an Olympic team with him.”
Whitlock described his selection for a third Games as “surreal”, and shrugged off the impact of his disappointing return to major competition at the European Championship last month, when a fall in the heats left him out of medal contention.
“Of course I would have liked it to have gone perfectly but a few things actually came to light and have made clear now what I needed to change in terms of the preparation,” added Whitlock.
“I didn’t want the Tokyo Olympics to be my first competition back after what would have been nearly two years, and it is important to make those kinds of mistakes there (in the Europeans) so that hopefully I make no mistakes in Tokyo.”
Selectors were meeting on Monday to discuss the make-up of the women’s team, with the official announcement delayed due to Becky Downie’s withdrawal from the final trial due to the tragic sudden death of her brother Josh.
Downie subsequently undertook a specially-arranged trial last week and BOA chef de mission Mark England said he had every confidence in the fairness and transparency of the process.
England said: “I am very confident that every opportunity has been extended to Becky and I know there is great empathy and sympathy for her situation, not just from the performance director and the coaches involved, but also from the other gymnasts who went through the qualifying.
“We are hoping we will be in a position to select the women’s team within a fortnight or so, and we are working through that at the moment.”