Although no South African gymnast has qualified for this summer's Olympic Games in London, recent FIG Challenger Cup vault finalist and African championships all-around silver medalist Kirsten Beckett is already aiming to take on the world's best at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Beckett has made a quick and successful leap into senior international competition this spring. She placed fourth on vault at the FIG Challenger Cup of Doha in March, and won five medals (golds on balance beam and floor exercise, silvers in the all-around, team and vault) at the African Championships in Tunis earlier in April.
Born March 5, 1996, in the west Johannesburg suburb of Hamberg, Beckett lives in Risidale, a suburb north of the city. She trains at Johannesburg Gymnastics Centre, where her main coach is Ilse Roets Laing, the 1995 South African all-around champion and two-time world championships competitor. Beckett's other coaches are Glen Hlongwane and Shirley Watson.
Beckett's achievements in 2012 continue the momentum generated by South African teammate Jennifer Khwela earlier in the Olympic cycle. Khwela became the first female African gymnast to win World Cup medals when she placed first on vault and third on balance beam at the 2010 Doha World Cup. Last year Khwela was fourth on vault at the French International (another World Cup meet) and the Cottbus Tournament of Masters, an FIG Challenger Cup meet.
In this IG Online interview, Beckett and Laing shared their perspective on the progress they are making in pursuit of Beckett's Olympic dream.
South Africa's Kirsten Beckett with coach Ilse Laing
IG: You have quickly achieved success at the senior international level, in just your first two senior international competitions. To what do you attribute not only your success, but your ability to quickly adjust to the pressure of senior competition?
KB: My coach, Ilse Laing, grouped me with our club's seniors during my final junior year in 2011, so I have been training with our seniors for a while. Also, our international trials in South Africa are open, so as a junior I also competed against our seniors. I think this and constant mentoring from my coach helped make the move to senior much easier.
IG: In Doha you came very close to winning a medal on vault. What do you think you will need to push into the medals at the next big FIG competition?
KB: We definitely need to increase the difficulty in both my front and back vaults to be more competitive internationally, as there are so many good vaulters out there. At the moment I am doing a Yurchenko 1-1/2, and my second vault is a basic handspring piked front. I am currently working on a Yurchenko double twist and a Yurchenko half-on, piked front half twist off, and hope to have this ready for next year.
IG: Would you say vault it your favorite event, best event, or perhaps just the one on which you have been the most successful recently?
KB: Vault is definitely my favorite apparatus and is fast becoming my best, as well.
IG: When and why did you start gymnastics?
KB: When I was about 5, my parents introduced me to quite a few sports, such as athletics, swimming and even soccer. They also enrolled me in a program called GYMKIDZ, a program to improve your motor skills. Because of my ability, and upon recommendation from Shirley Watson, the GYMKIDZ owner and also one of my coaches, my parents enrolled me in the Johannesburg Gymnastics Centre, and this is where I have been ever since. You could say that I have developed a natural passion for gymnastics.
IG: You and Jennifer Khwela have given South Africa a great push in the past couple of years. What in your opinion is the reason for your country's recent improvement?
KB: We are being introduced to and are competing in high-profile international competitions, and are constantly learning from them. Seeing world-class gymnasts in action and competing against them gives us the motivation we need to better ourselves. Also, our head coach makes sure that we attend at least one training camp per year to focus on skills development. Our coaches also attend regular courses arranged by the South African Gymnastics Federation, so they are also constantly bringing new techniques to assist us in bettering ourselves. We have both been fortunate to have also had fantastic input from Wesley Jones, who is a coach at Desert Devils in Arizona and an excellent vault coach, as well as a wonderful opportunity to train at the Western Australian Institute of Sport where Lauren Mitchell, Georgia Simpson and Emily Little train. And of course, Jen (Khwela) has set the benchmark in terms of winning medals on the international scene and has shown me that it is possible. This has also pushed me to believe that we can be internationally competitive, even with less exposure and less ideal circumstances, such as very little funding.
IG: 2012 is a difficult year for many gymnasts who have not qualified for Olympic Games, but still have motivation and goals. What are your goals for the rest of the year, and what are your ultimate goals?
KB: We have our national championships on June 1-2 in Pretoria, so my first goal is to become the national champion. After that I really want to take some time out of competition and focus on upgrading my routines. I am also hoping to be selected as one of the South African team members for next year's world championships and to put in a strong challenge for the Commonwealth Games in 2014 in Scotland. My ultimate goal is to qualify outright for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. For that I will need to increase my difficulty substantially, stay injury-free and continue working hard.
Ilse Roets Laing
IG: How much of a surprise, if at all, has Kirsten's success in Doha and Tunis been for you, as her coach?
IRL: Kirsten's success hasn't really come as a surprise. She is one of the most talented gymnasts I have ever worked with and is extremely powerful. Doha was her first ever senior competition, and I really believe she has the potential to take South African women's gymnastics to a different level.
IG: What do you see as the biggest challenge you face in coaching Kirsten?
IRL: I have been working with Kirsten since her very first forward roll, and I can't say that she faces any abnormal challenges. She is going through puberty, which is always quite tough on a gymnast, but she is extremely strong and in good shape. As long as she can maintain where her body is right now, she should be really competitive by the Olympics in 2016. She has also been quite unlucky over the past few years as she has suffered some nasty growth-related and chronic injuries, such as Osgood-Schlatter disease (inflammation of the tendon below the kneecap), and a torn hamstring in 2010, but she is also fortunate as she recovers quite quickly.
IG: Now that Kirsten is off to a strong senior start, what is your strategy for maintaining and improving her performance level?
IRL: Our strategy is to add difficulty systematically, and as and when she can handle it mentally and physically. She has so many skills in the pipeline, but it is always going to be about doing them at the right time, so as to keep her safe and confident. We have a really good relationship and she has a great deal of input into what she is comfortable with and what she can handle, so this is an important factor to ensure future success. She works extremely hard, so there is really no reason for her not to reach her full potential.