Since viewers of the London Olympics, 2012, caught sight of the limber and daredevil antics of gymnasts Louis Smith and Beth Tweddle, it seems that the sport has never been so popular.
But one fact that many may not realise is that Northampton is home to what is believed to be the oldest gymnastics club in the country.
This is a special year for the NCAAC Gymnastics Club in Far Cotton as it is celebrating its 150th anniversary.
The club has kept its membership going despite times when such milestone events as World War One hit its numbers hard.
And, although gymnastics is today a sport taken up by more girls than boys, in its early days the reverse was true.
Club chairman Kevin Flynn, who is also chairman of the English Gymnastics Association, explained: “It started in 1863 as a multiple sport club, it was called the Northampton and County Amateur Athletics Club. It had multiple sports and gymnastics was one of them. In those days, it was only men, girls weren’t allowed to do gymnastics. Then there was also athletics, swimming, running and the things that the gentry used to do.
“I think girls weren’t allowed to do gymnastics because of the attire they wore, they were a bit strict in those days. It had to be tight fitting or it would become dangerous as clothing could catch on apparatus.
“It did not really become popular until Olga Korbut became famous.”
Ask any keen gymnast, even today, and most will know the name of Olga Korbut, who shot to fame with her artistic form of gymnastics in the 1972 Olympics. Even today, the Korbut Flip move is still very popular, and she was just one of the big names to have helped make the sport as successful as it is today.
Performances by the likes of Beth Tweddle and Louis Smith in last year’s Olympics also helped matters and now the NCAAC has a long waiting list of youngsters keen to join.
Now based in Far Cotton, the club has 198 pre-school members (the youngest participant is nine months old) and 330 in the main club. They also have about 12 adult gymnasts. There are 100-150 on the waiting list to join the main club.
The organisation runs both recreational classes and competition squads.
The oldest club member is 82-year-old Eddie Brookes, who is now the club president. Although he no longer actively takes part in gymnastics, apparently he still drops in to offer advice where needed.
Head coach Tracey Hanmore, Kevin’s daughter, said: “There was quite a big impact after the Olympics, we had quite a lot of new gymnasts coming through, wanting to be the next Louis Smith or Beth Tweddle.”
And the extraordinarily daring manoeuvres seen at the Olympics go a long way to making the sport tougher as the bar is raised for standards to be achieved.
Tracy said: “Every Olympic Games you see the Romanians and Americans performing more difficult moves and that has a knock-on effect lower down with people trying harder moves. It is a very difficult sport, you need so much strength and stamina.”
Kevin said: “It is much more difficult now, you have to be able to do double twists and backwards somersaults. I think it is the hardest sport.”
The club is now fortunate to be based in a unit in Far Cotton, but for many years it led a fairly nomadic existence. It started out at The Racehorse Inn, Abington Square, Northampton in 1863.
Later it moved from school to school and even took up temporary accommodation at Campbell Square during World War Two.
Kevin said: “When we first started we went from venue to venue. When Tracey was training, we had to take her to all these different venues with asymmetric bars in the back of our car.”
Today, the modern base at Far Cotton offers a lot more stability. Members there have reached a high enough standard to compete at a national level.
Two recent county champions in the club (for their age groups) include 11-year-old Amelia Birkett and nine-year-old Charlotte Chambers.
Amelia, from Northampton, said: “I have been doing gymnastics since I was five. I saw Beth Tweddle on TV and wanted to be like her. I would like to be a professional one day. I think it is a fun but hard sport.”
Jada Ababio, aged 11, from Wootton Fields, who also achieved highly at the County Championships, said: “I have been doing gymnastics for about seven years. It was something I wanted to do. I just tried it and liked it. I really want to carry on for as long as I can.”
I observe as the club’s high performance squad carry out impressive balancing acts and somersaults on the 1.2 metre high balance beams and the 2.6 metre high asymmetric bars. I spot tiny girls effortlessly sitting in the splits position on the floor. It is a far cry from my days at school when tackling the gymnastic ‘horse’ meant repeated run-ups, usually without any success at actually jumping over the thing.
Tracey said that, for those people who want to one day get as far as the Olympics, starting young is the key.
Tracey said: “We were the first purpose built gymnastics club in Northampton. We don’t quite have the things we need to get to the Olympics but we do have girls in national competitions so we are getting there.”
She explained: “You generally start at five years old to develop enough strength and stamina to get to that elite level.”
Although the club involves Tracey and her father Kevin, it is more than just a family affair as it is reliant on the assistance of a talented team of coaches to keep the work going.
Tracey said: “We have an amazing team, there are 20 coaches in and out every evening.
“We do encourage our ex gymnasts to take on coaching and we sponsor that too,” she added.
“We were founded in 1863, being the first club to be opened in England, and believe we are the only club in Northamptonshire that is allowed to use the County Coat of Arms as our logo.”
“We have old photos and letters going back to the 1800s (we have two original framed letters calling the inaugural meeting to form the Amateur Gymnastics Association) and are mentioned in the book “The History of British Gymnastics”.
To watch some of the NCAAC members in action, see www.northamptonchron.co.uk