Louis Smith: 'Being a celebrity is very alien to me'
“It’s very alien to me,” says Louis Smith, his brow furrowing at the mention of the celebrity world into which he strolled just weeks after leaving the controlled chaos of the Olympic Village.
While most of his fellow athletes are back in the gym, hoisting hefty weights and exchanging verbals with coaches, Smith is on primetime television, exchanging delicate touches and faux romantic glances with a woman so beautiful she’d turn most men to mush with a mere glance.
But not Smith. The 23-year-old remains singularly focused on the job at hand, using a tunnel vision he’s spent the past four years perfecting. It’s a focus that saw him transform from a self-confessed “mischievous kid” – who emerged wide-eyed from the 2008 Olympics with a shock bronze medal and an uncomfortable new position as a role model – into a leader strong enough to guide a group of less experienced gymnasts through the toughest test of their young lives. And now into a dancer... at least until the British public decides he isn’t one.
At that point, the spotlight illuminating Smith may dim slightly. And it’s then that the most successful British male gymnast in Olympic history will have the chance to reflect on a summer that was both astounding and infuriating. Not to mention a winter that has taken him into territories no British gymnast has ever ventured before.
You’ve been training like a professional dancer for the past few months. How does it compare with gymnastics training?
“It’s definitely less stressful than gymnastics training; I don’t have the burden of an Olympic Games round the corner, for a start. But it is hard work. I knew it was going to be, though, because what I do in the gym is hard work – but we make it look easy. It’s exactly the same watching the dancers perform on TV, although they make it look easy. I could appreciate without even trying that it would be hard work. I’m used to putting my body in strange positions, though…”
Before the Games, you said your body was in pieces from the years of graft. Is it starting to recover?
“I’d say it’s probably worse now. Although the gym was hard on the body, it kind of held it together too. Now that I haven’t been doing as much gym work, my muscles aren’t as strong and my ligaments are a bit looser – everything’s kind of aching a bit more. So it is taking a toll on the body. The only gym stuff I’m doing is what you see in the dance routines. I don’t get time to do any gym otherwise, because I train for Strictly from Monday to Thursday all day – then Friday is the dress run and Saturday is the live show. It’s a full-time thing.”
Is the plan to go back to gymnastics once your dancing days are over?
“I can’t wait to get back in the gym and do some training. I don’t really miss the competition side, but I do miss getting in the gym and training and having fun. In 19 years, this is the longest I’ve ever had off. It is nice to have a break, though, and I’d actually prefer it if I didn’t miss it. The fact I do miss it is a bit frustrating, because I’d like to have complete time off – but I can’t wait to get back in the gym.”
And on to Rio?
“I don’t know yet. I definitely want to get back into it and keep training and keep up the fitness. And, whether that spark comes back and I want to compete again, we’ll soon see. One step at a time, though – for the moment, I just want to get back in the gym and train.”
How different is your life now to this time last year, when you were preparing for the final attempt at qualification for London 2012?
“It’s mad. I feel no pressure to do stuff. I guess this is what it feels like to be a somewhat normal person. I have responsibilities, but they’re a lot less stressful. All the pressure that had been on me in the build-up to the Games just lifted as soon as my feet hit the floor after my final pommel horse routine. It was the best feeling ever – the amount of relief I felt – because everything had been geared towards the Olympics. Every interview I did – and I did loads – they were all about 2012. Now, all my questions are hardly about 2012; people have forgotten that I was a gymnast.”
Yet you were so nearly a gold medal-winning gymnast. How do you reflect now on your pommel final, where you scored the same number of points as the winner but missed out on the gold because of a technicality?
“I’d be a fool to sit here and say I didn’t want the gold medal, because I did. When I landed that pommel horse routine, I thought I’d done enough to get gold. But you can’t dwell on things – the decisions I’ve made in life have made me who I am today. I did what I did; I went to the Games and performed the best routine I’ve ever done in my life. I stepped it up on the night and did my harder routine the best I’ve ever done it – and I got a silver and a bronze medal from that Olympic Games. I can look back and be a happy man.”
But if you could go back and do it again…
“I wouldn’t want to do it again. I don’t think I could ever do that routine as good as I did it then. Out of all my training routines, that was the best routine I’d done in my life, and I did it at an Olympic Games. I always said if I nailed that routine, I’d have the potential to get the gold. But it was just the other guy was a little better that day.”
Your own performances aside, were there any at the Games that left you open-mouthed in awe?
“Our team event. I didn’t get to watch that much of the rest of the Games, but our team event was just crazy. We came third at the Olympic Games – Great Britain. We beat America, we beat Russia, we beat Germany. It’s absolutely bonkers. A few years ago, people would have called us mad if we’d said we would win a medal. We probably would have said so too, even the night before the Games. We knew we had the potential to do well, but we didn’t really bank on other teams messing up so much – which is the reason why we got medals. It shows that anything can happen. I said it so many times before the Games – you can be an Olympic champion in training, but when it comes to competition it’s something else entirely.”
Those gymnasts who do mess up have nowhere to hide while the competition is going on; they have to complete the rotation of all the apparatus. How hard is it to handle that aspect of the sport?
“You want to do so well – not just for you, but for the whole team. And because the team is banking on each score to count, you don’t want to feel like you’ve let them down. It’s a lot of responsibility – and, when it goes right, it’s the best feeling. But when it goes wrong, you really feel yourself slipping into a rut.”
As one of the most experienced gymnasts in the British team, did you give the others advice on how their lives might change after the Games?
“It’s a hard change to go through, when you come off the back of an Olympics having been successful. After Beijing, my life changed overnight. It wasn’t that I didn’t want it to, but it was just such a drastic change – nothing about it was gradual. I was a mischievous 19-year-old, still a bit naughty. And then all of a sudden I was a role model. Everyone was looking at me and talking about me. For that to happen to you overnight is tough – it can be hard to deal with.”
And now you have to deal with all the attention that comes with being a celebrity on primetime Saturday night television…
“Yeah, it’s very alien to me, I’m still getting used to it. It’s just very different. When I did sport interviews [before starting Strictly Come Dancing], they were interested in every single word I said, and they’d print it word for word and fact for fact. Now it’s almost like they’re trying to get dirt out of what you say, or they’ll leave parts of your conversation out to make it suggest something else. It’s a completely different world. Normally, if something’s not right, you’d say. But I’m having to learn to just let it blow over and be quiet, and let people think that what they’re reading is the truth. It’s hard, but it’s just another learning curve for me.”
Sarah Shephard @sarahsportmag
The Louis Smith 2013 calendar is available now from www.louis-smith-official.com