Emily Thomas has certainly not gone soft in her months away from the gym, but her hands have.
That’s why Wales’ 19-year-old Olympic hopeful is thrilled to be back as the first gymnast to step into regular training following lockdown.
The artistic gymnast from Bridgend, who has realistic hopes of making the Great Britain squad for Tokyo next year, admits things have changed in her four months away – most notably the hardened skin that enables her to grip the uneven bars for hours on end without too much difficulty.
Like most gymnasts, repetition usually hardens her hands and enables her to avoid blisters, but she admits: “I’ve been out of the gym for four months and so my hands have gone a bit soft.
“They are normally quite rough and as I’ve been doing gymnastics for a long time my hands have got used to that.
“So, I don’t normally have a big problem with blisters that rip, but I’m quite likely to blister for the first couple of weeks, which is obviously quite sore.
“It’s worth it, though. This sounds so strange, but the smell of the gym was so comforting as soon as I went back in.
“I am so used to the smell of chalk dust and sweat, that walking in there again made me think, ‘yeah, this feels like home’.”
The inside of a gym has certainly been a second home for Emily for most of her teenage years. But it was one that the coronavirus pandemic denied her for the past four months.
Instead, she has been using a pull-up bar and other pieces of makeshift equipment at home, as well as Zoom sessions with national coach Tracey Skirton.
Now, though, she is back using all the apparatus at the National Sports Centre in Cardiff, the high performance centre for the sport which has been adapted for the handful of gymnasts who have been allowed to return under strict supervision.
Emily was first through the doors – followed by rhythmic gymnasts Gemma Frizelle and Skyla Sims. Then, came Latalia Bevan and Holly Jones, with two more in men’s artistic gymnasts Emil Barber and Joe Cemlyn-Jones.
The surroundings for the seven elite Welsh gymnasts may be familiar, but the conditions are certainly not.
The Olympic and Commonwealth level performers have to use specific single pieces of apparatus for long stretches at a time – rather than switch from one to the next – to lessen the risk of infection.
Hand-sanitizers and temperature checks are part of the regular new routine and will be for some time.
“I have to check my temperature every day, even before I get to the gym. And I have to fill in a questionnaire,” adds Emily.
“On my first day back, it was about getting used to the new safety requirement and procedures.
“In terms of training, we are keeping things very basic because I have been away for so long. I’ve been on all apparatus, but the progress to more advanced gymnastics training will be very steady.”
For the A-level student who has taken a gap year before university, lockdown at least had one major consolation. It enabled her more rest and recuperation following the knee injury she suffered last September and which had cast a shadow over her Olympic preparation.
With no competitions and none of her rivals in a gym since March, she can see a silver lining to the gloomy days of lockdown.
“The last few months have been frustrating. I’m quite a social person and I like to train with people.
“But in a selfish way, the postponing of the Olympics has been a help to me. It gives me an extra year to get back to full fitness. There’s also less for me to catch up on as others haven’t been doing anything.
“The physical side is about getting your body used to all those aches and pains again, but there’s also a mental and emotional side. When you haven’t done these moves for a while, it can feel a little scary.”
For Welsh Gymnastics performance director Jo Coombs, the watchwords for Emily and the other six are patience and composure.
The soonest competition will return is the back end of this year, with the re-scheduled European Championships – which double as Olympic selection criteria – and that gives plenty of time for steady progress.
“The gymnasts might think they are ready, but physically it will take time for their bodies to re-adjust. It has to be slow and gentle,” says Jo.
“To replicate the forces that go through their bodies when they are on apparatus, it is very difficult to replicate that outside of the gym. So, it’s really important to be very cautious.
“This is a long process and even though some competitions have been re-scheduled, you would want some small competitions first.”
As for the rest of gymnastics – the clubs that compete and provide a community role throughout the country – then the green light to a return is yet to be flicked on.
“I think the hope is that if we can make this work from a fairly small base, then we might soon be able to open up the sport more fully. But there is certainly no date for that as yet,” adds Jo.
“We are not sure of the timetable for our clubs and the community, but things are being put in place.
“There have been lots of processes and procedures that mitigate any risk that potentially is there and also give confidence to the athletes and the coaches. Parents, too, need to know that we’re making it as safe as we possibly can.”
Feature by Dai Sport