By Vishal Saha
Hampton Fourth Year student Rex Booth is not your usual schoolboy – he is an elite-level gymnast, who has already won a silver medal for Great Britain in the Acrobatic European Championships and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down this sporting success.
Rex picked up the sport aged eight, after trying out one of his sister’s training sessions. He now trains at Richmond Gymnastics Association, where he trains for about 20-24 hours a week, depending on the time of the season.
Rex is also a well-rounded athlete because he performs at swimming, football and long-distance running at high levels. ‘I keep up with swimming by doing this in the morning before school. I wake up at 5 am and train before school, with gymnastics after school. I play football in the evenings, when I don’t have gym. Long distance running isn’t something I train in but is something I am involved in at school; this is because I get the endurance needed from swimming.’ Although these hours would be impossible for most to handle, Rex says ‘once you get used to it it becomes more manageable.’
Rex in the past trained in artistic gymnastics, but now trains in acrobatic gymnastics. At first, he had to learn the basics of gymnastics – handstands, somersaults, flexibility and other moves to provide a solid basis to work from.
In his specific area of gymnastics, he has to work in a group of either pairs, trios, or fours, and there are three possible routines he has to complete: balance, dynamic and combined. ‘In balance, the moves are static and you create towers of people, doing interesting moves at the top. These moves take lots of strength to hold people and skill to hold the positions, and can be very varied.
The dynamic moves are when the ‘top’ [the smallest person in the group] is launched into the air by the bases [people at the bottom] and completes different somersaults and moves in the air. This can be done in many different ways, one of which involves making a platform with you hands. Combined is a routine with a mixture of these things. We practice these moves and at competitions, we perform the moves incorporated in a routine.’
It is amazing, perhaps a little daunting, to see how all these difficult acrobatic moves join together to form a whole routine.
In the summer of 2019, Rex entered the Acrobatic British Championships in the Men’s 11-16 age group along with his teammates, held in Liverpool. This was the qualifying competition for the prestigious European Championships later that year in October. Although Rex highlights that, ‘there was a significant amount riding on this competition,’ his team still managed to take first place in this competition – an achievement Booth is extremely proud of.
When October finally dawned upon Rex’s team, they travelled up to Holon in Israel to represent Britain in the Acrobatic European Championships. Rex describes the experience of travelling with the team, preparing for a big competition abroad, and being surrounded by some of the best at the sport, as ‘incredible in itself.’ You can start to imagine the anticipation. Waiting for the moment you step up, in front of the audience. Hours and hours of practice all for this 3-minute performance. Up against strong competition from all over Europe.
At last, the GB team of four steps onto the gymnastics floor to perform their routine. The upbeat intro to the song, ‘I’m Still Standing’ starts booming through the speakers. Rex and his team begin their lively and dynamic performance. From tumbling and hand-standing in synchronisation with the music to creating gigantic human towers, the performance is dazzling and energetic. The score, from the judges is finally announced: 27.050 points. Great Britain win a silver medal.
For Rex, this is certainly a climax for his career so far and he found the experience nothing less than surreal and spectacular. ‘It was an amazing achievement for my partners and I to achieve this in a European Championship. We were elated moments after we realised our score in our final routine, and I remember vividly the happiness I felt; it was an incredible feeling and something I had never experienced before.’
‘I think the difference was not the hours of training we put in, but the effort within that time: to get there took a lot of practice and fine-tuning, but in the end it was all worth it because we were working for something we desired and enjoyed simultaneously.’
Although it can be easy to get caught up in the next training session or next major competition, Rex is still a regular, 15-year-old schoolboy at the end of the day. He must balance sport and academics, especially with his GCSEs fast approaching. A question many would ask is whether sport interferes with his school work. For Rex, he admits ‘it is a busy schedule, and it does take some time to get used to it’. He added that ‘once you stay organised and get used to it, it becomes a habit, rather than a struggle. To balance it all, it’s about be organised and prepared.’
Rex has to know what training and schoolwork he has for the week ahead, so he can make a rough plan to stay on top of things. If there is a piece of work that is set and Rex cannot do it for the next few nights, he tends to do it at the weekend, when he has more time.
So it’s clear that Rex has learnt to juggle sports with school well, but how does he keep motivated to continue with sports? There seems to be a common phenomenon that many teenage boys and girls often decide to step away from sports, especially as they get older. Booth, on the other hand, is quite the opposite and it is his ambitious attitude that keeps him driven to improve. ‘What keeps me motivated is something that I have developed over time,’ he says.
‘Essentially, I have always been a very competitive person, whether that be an important competition or a monopoly game, I have always wanted to win. I believe that anyone who is in competitive sports has this, otherwise they wouldn’t be there.’
Rex adds that the feeling when you achieve something that initially, seemed ‘unrealistic and difficult’ and you get to do it again and again, it fills you with a ‘small sense of pride and satisfaction each time.’
When doing acrobatic gymnastics, one things Rex has had to learn to deal with is nerves.
Almost all sportsmen will have felt nerves before major competitions. As well as learning your specific routine by heart, there is always a high level of risk that an individual somersault, lift, jump or turn could go completely wrong – not only ruining the performance, but potentially putting your teammate in actual danger.
‘It can become very nerve wracking and often you cannot control the nerves but you can control how prepared you feel. So it is better to focus in training and be the most prepared you can, as this will increase your confidence on the day of competition,’ Rex says. ‘In addition, you have to remind yourself that the only thing you can do is go out and do your best, so you should try and not worry about the outcome, but the task at hand.’
The outbreak of the coronavirus also presented another challenge for Rex, as the majority of sport was cancelled. This has had an ostensible impact on Rex’s gymnastics as well, as exercise is such a vital element of his day-to-day life. ‘At the moment, with the current situation of COVID-19 it is all slightly uncertain, but we are just continuing to train and work hard so we are ready for what could happen. We missed out on some competitions in the previous year due to lockdown and restrictions, so it has been a strange year,’ he reflects.
It’s remarkable to see how Rex’s hard work and dedication to his sport and the high levels he has reached in gymnastics. But this all doesn’t seem so easy to achieve. I ask Rex to share some of his advice for young people thinking about doing gymnastics or indeed any other competitive sports. ‘I would say to anyone doing any level or high level of sport is to make sure that you enjoy it. I think this is because internal motivation is very powerful, but this only comes from your desire and care for something.’
Rex makes the candid point that, ‘as you get further into it, some people may lose this enjoyment’ but that if you keep working at something, improvement will come. ‘I would advise people who are trying to balance sport and school to just try, that’s it. It may seem hard to manage it but if you are making the extra piece of effort in what you do, it becomes a lot easier.’
Rex has clearly demonstrated what it really takes to be an elite-level athlete. We often don’t see what lies behind the scenes when creating a sporting champion. Whether that be waking up at 5 am in the morning, or juggling school with hours and hours of extra training, the tenacity, grit and determination of this teenage schoolboy is inspirational.