As excitement builds for the Olympics we ask our insider on the Men’s GB Gymnastics team - Shrewsbury physio Jonny Bucke - what it’s like behind the scenes.
"There's a massive team behind the team" says Shrewsbury-based physiotherapist Jonny Bucke who is in Tokyo supporting the GB Men's gymnastics squad at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre.
Britain’s gymnasts took gold in two finals five years ago in Rio: the men’s floor and men’s pommel horse, both won by Max Whitlock in 2016. Max will be hoping to defend his titles in these two finals on August 1 this year. English artistic gymnast Joe Fraser has also been tipped for a medal on the final day of artistic gymnastics, August 3. Team GB finished fourth in the artistic gymnastics men's team event in Rio, nudged from the podium by Japan, Russia and China.
Jonny held back regarding Team GB’s chances, but allowed: “We have a chance of a medal in the Pommel horse”.
We rarely appreciate the scaffolding around these phenomenal athletes - we only see them hurtling through the air or spinning around on the parallel bars, but just out of sight, camera right or left, primed to react to the slightest mishap or pulled muscle, will be the anxious faces of the physios.
Jonny flew out on July 14 and will return on August 5 – the team moved into the athlete village this week, having spent the past five days in the holding camp in Yokohoma. He said: "Gymnastics is the longest running event. It starts on the first day (July 24, with the men’s qualification day in artistic gymnastics) and finishes a couple of days before the end.
“It’s very hot and humid here but all is going well so far.”
Jonny’s mission is to keep all of his athletes in tip top condition throughout the competition. It has been a difficult build-up, thanks to the pandemic, as he explained: "Covid hit quite hard. It was tough on the athletes mentally as much as anything. There was so much unsureness. They didn't know if the Olympics were going to be cancelled. They've spent four years peaking for that moment and then they could have had the rug pulled out from them.
“During lockdown, obviously there wasn't much for me to do, as they guys weren't training. My job was to keep checking in with them to keep them happy and motivated."
This year is no ordinary Olympics, as Jonny explained before he flew out: "We'll have to have two weeks in a training centre, totally locked down before we fly. Then, when we're there, we'll be in a Team GB holding camp with a shuttle bus to the training centre. We won't be allowed out. Once it's over, we'll fly straight home."
He was disappointed not to be able to take his partner Alice, an Opthalmic surgeon, also based in Shrewsbury. Being away from home is tough, with both of them in high-powered jobs. In 2018, he spent 100 days abroad. Alice is unlikely to spot him on camera in Tokyo – Jonny does his best to avoid it!
"The guys always try to get me on camera by sitting right next to me, but it’s not about me, it's about them achieving their dreams."
Jonny qualified in 2012 and completed an MSc in Musculoskeletal Physiotherapy, funded by the English Institute of Sport, at Birmingham University. Before joining Team GB, he worked as physio for amateur ruby teams, 'running on with a sponge' as he calls it, and later at Reading Football Club, his first taste of elite sport.
A placement came up with the GB Gymnastics squad working with the Men's and Women's Artistic (rings, floor, vault and pommel) and Jonny got it, despite knowing nothing about the sport.
"I'd only ever seen gymnastics at the London Olympics. I went into the job blind. I think they liked that. It's a niche sport and you bring in different ideas. I never did have a specific sport in mind that I wanted to work in."
His current role is funded by UK Sport: "Lots of funding is dependent on medals successes so you never know, the funding could be in jeopardy - look what happened to Badminton after Rio.” (Badminton was one of five sports to lose its funding, despite delivering a bronze medal at the Rio games)
This puts a pressure on the athletes to deliver, as Jonny explains: "They have performance targets and if they miss those, they know they may be cut from the squad. It's hard on them. With Gymnastics, they have to be massively intrinsically motivated and want to do it not for the money or cars. They do it for themselves, unless they are a Max Whitlock (five-time Olympic medalist); if you get Olympic medals, the sponsors come a calling. He will be the one driving the nicest car!
It's up to Jonny and his colleagues to ensure they stay fit and healthy enough to compete. Injuries are quite likely when you are pushing the body to its limits: British Olympic bronze medalist Nile Wilson, who retired in January 2021, snapped ankle ligaments in training in 2017 during a parallel bars routine.
The riskiest event is the vault, as Jonny explains: "It's on landing they can injure their knees and ankles.”
French gymnast Samir Ait Said shocked viewers by breaking his leg very badly at Rio during a vault landing: "It was a horrible injury," Jonny said.
Jonny's favourite event is the high bar: "As the physio, you are stood by the side as they are doing these high flips (in case they fall off and land on their heads!) - it's so crazy. You're so nervous, your heart is in your mouth. They are so athletic and train so hard, it's unbelievable to watch."
He was standing by when Joe Fraser won gold on the parallel bars at the World Championships in Stuttgart in 2019: "The team atmosphere when he won was incredible."
2019 World Championships Stuttgart (where the GB team qualified for Tokyo Olympics)
Jonny, 30, was also at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 on the Gold Coast of Australia when team GB ‘cleaned up’: “It was awesome - being out in Oz, having those beaches and bars and the team atmosphere. Obviously you work hard and when we're competing we're on all the time, but once it's over, you'll get some time off."
Right: 2018 - after the team won Gold in the Gold Coast, Australia
Jonny is full time with the Men's GB squad but also works at Salopia Health and Performance in Battlefield. His hours are flexible when the athletes are training at Lilleshall National Sports Centre: "When they're in a competition you could be gone four weeks,” he said.
As a youngster, Jonny wanted to be an elite sportsman but didn’t quite make the grade (he was a Berkshire county tennis player). It was only when watching Arsenal play that he realised there were other jobs within sport: "I watched the physio run on. I remember asking my dad what he was doing. I had never been injured playing sport. It wasn't a job I'd thought of before, so I did some work experience and loved it.
"It's a great job. It doesn't feel like a job. I never get that Sunday feeling dreading work. It's amazing working with those talented guys in that setup at that elite level with all the gadgets and equipment you could possibly want to get them back to fitness. It's a great team as well. Working with the other physios, doctors and professionals, having that support and team bonding is so fun.
"There are nine support staff for six athletes - there's a massive team behind the team.”
"The aim is to help people reach their goals. It's great to be able to think you've really made a difference. You can spend all day with your gymnast. It's a massive challenge. It's undoubtedly cool to go to all these events and the Olympics is such a prestigious opportunity, it's a once in a lifetime thing. I don't do my job to go to the Olympics, I do it for the team. The Olympics is a nice perk of the job."
Jonny is very personable, and easy to talk to; building a rapport with the gymnasts is an essential part of the job. He has spent a lot of time helping rehabilitate Giarnni Regini-Moran, who won a bronze on the vault in the European Championships earlier this year, aged 21. Giarnni suffered a traumatic knee injury in 2016 during Olympic selection after an awkward fall off the high bar – which left him with ‘brutal’ knee injuries requiring surgery.
2019 - European Games, Belarus, helping Gianni win his silver medal
A good physio always keeps a boundary between professional and private life: "The guys often open up to me when they're on the physio bed, and obviously you spend more time with the ones that are injured, but we're not friends. It's a professional relationship. It's like with your GP, you never want to see them when you’re out."
Athletes are allowed to party once the competitions are over, however: “After all, they're 18/19-year-old kids, most of them,” Jonny said.
Male gymnasts have to be 18 to compete in the Olympics, whereas girls only have to be 16 in the year they go. Men are usually also able to carry on competing for longer - into their late 20s, whereas girls tend to retire earlier. “If their parents haven't started training them by the age of four or five, they are unlikely to reach an elite level - it's an early specialisation sport," Jonny said.
I wondered, what makes a good gymnast? "They all have a selfish streak in them. You have to be, to be at that top level. They are all so highly motivated. It's unbelievable. Through lockdown, one of our gymnasts had a ring set over a tree in his local park, doing all his strength work and getting some funny looks from the public."
A keen member of Shrewsbury Athletics Club, Jonny's claim to fame is that he beat the entire GB Men's Gymnastic squad in a 5K run: "They do strength training and short sharp fitness," he explained, "They can't run!"
He also has one more advantage: "I'm 6ft 3", they are 5ft 5!"
MEET THE TEAM
Joe Fraser – Age 22, from Birmingham. Career Highlights: 2017 British Championships all-around champion, 2019 European Championships all-around 4th, 2019 World Championships parallel bars champion.
James Hall – Age 25, from Maidstone. Career Highlights: 2017 European Championships all-around bronze, 2018 World Championships all-around 8th, 2019 British Championships all-around champion.
Giarnni Regini-Moran – Age 22, from Dartford. Career Highlights: 2016 Junior European Championships all-around and floor champion, 2019 British Championships all-around silver, 2021 European Championships vault bronze.
Max Whitlock MBE – Age 28. Career Highlights: 2012 Olympic Games team and pommel bronze, 2015, 2017 & 2019 world pommel champion, 2016 Olympic Games floor and pommel champion, all-around bronze
Photos: British Gymnastics