Olympic gymnastics equipment put to use by Falcons
IMAGINE yourself driving on the Brazilian race track at Interlagos where Lewis Hamilton clinched his Formula 1 world title.
Or running in spikes formerly worn by Jessica Ennis or Mo Farah.
Or boxing in a ring once graced by Muhammad Ali.
Or, to use the comparison drawn by one coach visiting Barnstaple's shining new £1m gymnastics facility: "It's like a footballer hitting the same football that Wayne Rooney played with."
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Inside the Falcons Community Sports Centre stands much of the equipment used by Beth Tweddle and Louis Smith as they delivered medals for Great Britain at the 2012 London Olympics.
Walk through the Tarka Tennis Centre, past the outdoor courts, through a doorway into the new home of the Falcons Gymnastics Academy and there you see it – an eye-catching collection of rings, bars, beams and vault tables bearing the official Olympic signature.
Thanks to forward thinking by coaching director Mike Beagley four years ago, Falcons secured a £50,000 deal to buy the equipment once the Olympics were over.
And for the gymnasts taking part in the Devon novice team event for girls on Sunday, it was like following in the footsteps of Tweddle and 16-year-old American double gold medallist Gabby Douglas. Literally.
They performed on the uneven bars upon which Tweddle became the first British woman to win an individual gymnastics medal since 1928.
And they performed on the floor, beams and vaults where Douglas became the first woman to win all-around and team golds in one Olympics.
Although the official opening had taken place five weeks earlier, this was the first competition staged at the centre.
"The most common word said when people walk through the door is 'wow'," said Beagley, who has an undeniable right to be proud of the gleaming new home.
Eight years ago, Beagley contributed £30,000 of the £100,000 put up by a group of parents to start the club at Pottington Business Park.
He gave up his job as a care worker and teacher at a special needs school to work full time for the Academy.
He and others, he said, had "gambled their livelihoods" and "entered into the unknown".
What is known now is that, largely thanks to Beagley's efforts, the Falcons are housed in a centre that is the envy of clubs around the South West.
"Just fantastic," said Plymouth Swallows coach Lloyd Byrne, who had drawn the Rooney comparison.
"To see a purpose-built facility like this is outstanding.
"It is pretty much the only place in the South West that has state-of-the-art facilities, everything under one roof.
"We will be making links to come from Plymouth to use this facility. Our gymnasts want to travel here to use the equipment that Olympic champions have used.
Nine pieces of equipment display London 2012 branding – two vault tables, two beams, uneven bars, high bar, parallel bars, rings and vault runway.
How much difference has it made to the Falcons gymnasts?
Beagley said: "For the elite children, who train at national level, they are so inspired by those (Olympic) athletes and training on the equipment they competed on, and won medals on, means the world to them."
The gym is further equipped with foam pit, trampoline, and seating space for 150 spectators, although plans are in place for bleacher seating, pulled out from the walls, to accommodate 500.
The seating is all that stands between the centre and qualifying to stage national events.
Entering the building, you are greeted by a London 2012 poster of Smith and Max Whitlock, the silver and bronze medallists in the men's pommel horse.
Inside the vestibule leading to the main hall is a poster of the bronze medal winning GB men's team and a framed 2008 Beijing Olympics shirt signed by the British women's team.
"We had to shut for two weeks while we moved here and our girls went to London to train," said Beagley. "The Sapphire club gave the shirt to the girls as a present to us moving into our new building."
The gymnasts also benefit from improved acoustics in the nine-metre high building and lighting strong enough to meet requirements to host national events.
"We are just waiting for our tumble track to arrive," said Beagley. "That's 22 metres of springy track so the children don't hurt their knees and joints doing it on the floor."
While the equipment is a distinctive red and brown, and the floor cream, the carpeting is the shade of purple widely used at Olympic venues.
"Pure fluke," said Beagley. "I was quoted £20,000 by the contractors to carpet the place so I did some research and found these tiles from somebody who had pulled them out of a building that was being demolished. They let me have them for £875."
The completion of a project financed by British Gymnastics, North Devon Council, Devon County Council and Fullabrook Wind Farm Community Interest Company has enabled the club to set its sights high.
The goals are to double membership to more than 1,000, broaden the scope of events hosted and, ultimately, qualify a gymnast for the Olympics.
Falcons' former home was too small to stage even county events.
Now the first of these has been held, they have their first regional event to look forward to, the South West apparatus championships on February 17. National events will follow.
"At our old facility we didn't have a full floor, we didn't have a vault runway that was long enough and we didn't have a seated area," said Beagley. "Our kids always had to go away to compete."
And a future Olympian? "We have two boys in the Great Britain squad – Adam Tobin and Joe Jones," said Beagley. Could they develop into Olympic contenders come 2020? "I would like to think so."
Kayleigh Masters, one of the 20 full or part-time coaches working at Falcons, has been with the club since it launched.
"Coming here has been such a massive change," said Kayleigh, a full-time girls coach.
"The girls have much more passion to get better. They see a proper gym with Olympic equipment and, having seen the Olympics this summer, they want to get there.
"I have seen much more enthusiasm in the way they train and in the coaches too."
On Sunday, Robin Leeworthy was judging on the uneven bars.
The last time she had seen this equipment was at the North Greenwich Arena, where she was head judge on the women's bars.
She had spent two weeks staring at them so she was sure they were authentic – the bars on which Tweddle won bronze.
"They have a special button to move the bars quicker and, because they made them differently, I know they are the correct ones," she said.
It may not have been North Greenwich but Robin was impressed by the Falcons' new venue.
"Beautiful," she said. "One of the best in the South West. North Devon should be proud."