When keen, young students first arrive at Horndean’s Concorde gymnastics club ahead of their Friday evening session of leaping, spiralling and vaulting, they probably don’t expect to be greeted by three coaches who are as old as their granddads.
But John Molloy and Ray Peck, both 80, and Peter Brookes, 69, boast a wealth of knowledge that would be the envy of any gym club.
Since they started involving themselves in the sport off the back of their own children’s interest in the 1970s, these veteran coaches continue to teach and mentor 30 five-16-year-olds every week to bring them on in the challenging world of gymnastics.
‘You go into the gym and forget all your worries. You let it take over – it’s therapeutic,’ says John, who celebrated his 80th birthday last month.
‘We often walk back to the car together after training and say “I’m glad I came tonight”.’
John, Ray and Peter all started their coaching careers in the sport by simply taking their children along to other clubs.
John, from Bedhampton who is Concorde’s head coach, explains: ‘I got involved in gymnastics in the early 1980s through my daughter. We were watching the Olympic Games at the time so we joined our local club in Waterlooville called Ville.
‘Like most parents, you get involved. After about nine months, I went on to get my qualifications as assistant club coach and then a year later I became club coach.’
When Peter brought his family down to Waterlooville from Lancashire in 1984, he had no option but to find his son some sort of physical education.
He says: ‘The schools were so full my then six-year-old son had no physical education at school because the hall was used as a classroom and the playground had temporary classrooms on it.
‘I went off looking for something and found the gym club at Havant Leisure Centre and I took him down.
‘As John was saying, you can drop your kids off but there was no point in driving back to Waterlooville so I sat and watched.
‘A couple of weeks into it, the coach said he was alone that day and would I mind giving him a hand.’
And for Ray, a senior coach from Havant, he set up his own club in Portsmouth after his daughter became interested after watching the Olympics.
‘I started coaching around 1971 and my daughter wanted to go to gymnastics after watching them on TV.
‘At that time, there were not really any clubs anywhere. I was directed to Pitt Street Baths, which at that time was the Royal Naval School of Physical Training.
‘As it happened, there was a marine on detachment there who was an England gymnastics competitor.
‘We worked together and had to get our club coach qualifications fairly quickly, because if he got posted the club would have had to close.
‘I then went down to the Marine Barracks at Eastney and set up a gym club there. It soon moved to Mayfield School and turned into Portsmouth Gymnastic Club.’
With their qualifications under their belts, the three coaches became fully immersed in the sport despite full-time jobs and family.
John adds: ‘This is a hobby and has always been unpaid – still is today.
‘We are probably a rare bunch, it’s all voluntary.
‘But we still absolutely love it otherwise we wouldn’t be here.’
In 1982, John joined Horndean’s gymnastic club Concord – later renamed Concorde – and it wasn’t too long before Peter followed.
‘Concorde had a very high-standard boys’ club,’ says John.
‘They only had about three or four young girls at the club, so I became the girls’ coach.’
Peter, who is a senior coach and also club chairman, says: ‘Havant boys moved up to Horndean in 1986. It was becoming a very competitive club and it ran six days a week.
‘The Concorde boys’ squad built to the point where we were the strongest boy squad in the southern region in the late ’80s/early ’90s.
‘We were competing at national level with the boys. It was fabulous to be involved with but it was a huge time commitment.’
John smiles and says: ‘Sometimes I was coaching five nights a week. You think you have time at the weekend to see the wife and kids but the most competitive time for a gymnast is the weekend.
‘Boys would compete on a Saturday and girls on a Sunday.
‘We were doing a professional job with pride because no one else in the club had the qualifications we had. We progressed with our gymnasts, and that’s the wonderful thing.’
‘But then things changed in Portsmouth,’ says Peter.
During the 1980s, Pitt Street Swimming Baths, Landport, were going to be demolished.
Peter explains: ‘But you can’t knock down a listed building so it was given to British Gymnastics and converted into a gymnastics centre of excellence – with the clear understanding it would be at that standard, and not just a gym club.
‘For about 12 months that was stuck to and then it became a gym club in its own right, which sucked all of the high performance gymnasts and most of the coaches into that centre.
‘It badly damaged all the small clubs around here as a lot of parents moved their kids there. It lost that grassroots build to the point where the southern region is now one of the weakest in the country.’
Ray says: ‘When the Pitt Street Centre of Excellence opened, they contacted Portsmouth Gymnastic Club and asked if we had a coach to go and run some sessions. I started running some sessions and they offered to pay me £5 an hour .
‘I also started coaching at Chichester and they started competing at national level.
‘I retired from there when I was around 70. But I bumped into John one day in Havant and we knew each other from competitions. He said he needed coaches and I joined Concorde.’
Concorde Club takes pride in the fact it has tutored some of today’s best gymnasts – many of whom have competed nationally, and helped produce one Commonwealth Games champion.
The club’s lead trainers have also mentored their own coaches and it has its own equipment.
John says: ‘There always comes a point in a gymnast’s life where they want to pack up and for one reason or another, they don’t know why.
‘But that’s what you have to crack. Once they have that bug to coach, they are hooked again.
‘They have all the knowledge but they don’t know how to put it into words – and that’s what you have to encourage.
‘We have been very successful in doing that. And you could go to a number of clubs in this area and most of the coaches have come from our club. We’re very proud of that.’
Ray adds: ‘I’ve always said to our young gymnasts who want to coach that they have got the advantage because they have done it and can demonstrate it.
‘We’ve never been gymnasts.
‘We’re also a unique club because we own all of our equipment.
‘But like an old-fashioned club, the kids put the kit out and put it back. It’s about discipline.’
Today, Concorde relies on John, Peter and Ray for coaching sessions.
But looking to the future, they want someone to take over their role.
Peter explains: ‘We only run one night a week because that’s where our energy is now.
‘We desperately need more coaches like we were in 1971, 80 and 84 who are willing and have the drive to help the kids. You need to be prepared to give.
‘We have had kids here in our hall doing vaults you see in the Olympics and they have learnt to do it in that hall.’
Concorde currently coaches 30 young people and has another 30 on the waiting list. ‘If we could get some more coaches, we would love to open another session to then bring those kids in,’ he continues.
‘When you bring a teenager through as a coach, they are great but then they move on with university, for example. We love to see the progress but we need a level of consistency within the club so we can take on more young gymnasts.’
During their gym careers at Concorde, the coaches have only known of three broken bones. Peter explains: ‘There’s an enormous trust in the gym. Between us and the kids and between us as coaches. I know I can totally rely on John and Ray and the kids know they can rely on us.
‘You have to build it up. I tell them: “Swing off that high bar eight foot off the ground. As you get into the top of the swing you’re going to let go of it and twist round and then grab hold of the bar again and safely spin round’.”
‘Easy peasy,’ quips John.
But despite their age, the trio continue to coach with professionalism and for the love of their sport. Ray says: ‘I find it a privilege to be involved in gymnastics. Without noticing it, you’re giving so much to these kids in confidence. Not just in gymnastics but in life.’
‘It’s an elegant sport and is so good to watch. The elegance you see of a leap, jump and in spiral moves is pure beauty,’ adds John.
Peter smiles and says: ‘We do it for the magic of it.’
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