07/24/2012 03:37 EDT | Updated 09/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Keep calm and carry on: British gymnasts feel pressure of home Olympics, rising expectations

LONDON - Get off Twitter, keep your eyes on the ground in the Olympic village and, whatever you do, don't gape at all those British flags or messages of encouragement from what seems like the entire country.

Like all British athletes, the gymnasts are feeling the magnitude of competing in a home Olympics. Add to that the heightened expectations for a program that's become an emerging power since Beijing and, well, it can be a little much.

"It's been overwhelming, definitely," acknowledged Rebbeca Tunney, who, at 15, is the youngest member of the entire British delegation. "I wasn't expecting it to be like this. I was expecting it to be huge. But this is different."

Gymnastics begins Saturday with men's qualifying. Women's qualifying is Sunday.

The British have been looking forward to these games since London was awarded them back in 2005. Sam Oldham, the youngest member of the men's team at 19, vividly remembers realizing the following year that the Olympics would soon be coming to London, and thinking how much he wanted to be a part of it.

Now that it's here, it's both thrilling and daunting. The national pride is overwhelming, from Union Jacks plastered everywhere to banners touting the Olympic delegation as "Our Greatest Team."

"Like for all the GB athletes, there's a bit of anxiety involved," said Louis Smith, whose bronze on pommel horse in Beijing was Britain's first Olympic medal in 80 years. "There's no running away from how serious the competition is and the pressure. We just have to focus in on what we do best. That's just trying to enjoy the competition and hoping the crowd will get behind us."

Five years ago, the British would have been happy just to host the party. They barely had a chance of making a final, let alone claiming a spot on the podium, and the Americans, Chinese, Russians, Romanians and Japanese could have been forgiven had they not realized who those other competitors in the red, white and blue uniforms were.

But, led by Smith and three-time world champion Beth Tweddle, the British are in the midst of a total transformation. They've won at least one medal at the last five world championships, and the men swept the junior and senior team titles at the European Championships this spring. The British women had their best finish yet, fifth, at last year's worlds.

Hannah Whelan became the first woman besides Tweddle to win a medal at Europeans, claiming bronzes on both floor exercise and beam this year.

Four years after Smith's medal, the British expect to win at least one or two more in London.

"Look back just four years, and it was probably limited to just Louis and Beth. Now we have a good (group) of gymnasts that, on a good day, can be in position," said Tim Jones, Olympic performance director for British Gymnastics. "We feel we have a number of arrows in our bow that we can shoot to target. That's what we haven't had in the past."

The home advantage should help, too. While some athletes might be unnerved at the prospect of an arena full of boisterous and adoring fans, that's brought out the best in the British in recent years. When the worlds were at The O2 Arena in 2009, Tweddle won her second world title, on floor, and Daniel Keatings gave Britain its first all-around medal at a major championships.

At the test event in January, the men routed France by almost eight points in the team competition, posting the top three individual scores, and also won the high bar, floor exercise and pommel horse titles. Tunney, in her very first international meet as a senior, posted the fourth-highest score on uneven bars in qualifying.

"Far from a daunting experience, they fed off the support from the British crowd and performed better than expected," Jones said. "We're hoping that's the case this time, as well."

But it won't happen by accident. Which explains why Smith, the most active of the British gymnasts in social media, said goodbye to his Twitter followers Monday night. He might post a thing or two on the general account for the men's team, but it won't be anywhere close to his usual barrage.

"Just to keep the eye on the prize," Smith said when asked about his silence. "Obviously, we want to build a reputation and we want to go into different things after this."

And he better than anyone knows how big an impact the Olympics can have on an athlete.

Smith's medal has made him a crossover celebrity — and a wealthy man. He met the queen when he returned home and he's in advertisements for everything from airlines to fast food.

"This can reflect our whole life," he said. "This Olympic Games, depending on what happens, we can make living out of it."

The entire country, after all, is watching.


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