Thirteen years ago, Nile Wilson’s parents let him make a Hollywood walk of fame-style palm-print in concrete in their Pudsey garden. Above the imprint of his seven-year-old hands are the letters: “Nile M, Olympic Gymnast”.
It wasn’t a bad prediction. In fact, Wilson’s gone one better, securing Britain’s second medal in an hour in the high bar final, taking their total, after a week and a half of gymnastics, to seven. It is comfortably the nation’s best performance in the sport. “It’s changed gymnastics for ever,” said Wilson, his trademark grin back on his face after tears of pride had dried off. “Even today I was watching Amy [Tinkler] on the screen winning her bronze medal and it was just inspiration after inspiration and I thought: ‘You know, I can do the same, why not?’”
Why not indeed: the Pudsey lad certainly had form coming into this gymnastics grand finale, the static trapeze where protagonists who look gravity in the eye, and tell it to get stuffed. At only 20 he had become the first Briton to win a major international title on high bar when he took gold in the European championships earlier this year and the only person to score higher than him in qualifying was Fabian Hambüchen. The German finally achieved gold here after a bronze in Beijing and a silver in London.
Blurred Lines was playing over the PA as Hambüchen, first up, took to the apparatus. There is nothing blurry about the German’s lines. A resolute technician, he eschews high-flying exhibitionism for a routine packed with clockwork turns. His only real mistake came after he had landed, when he saluted the judges and suddenly lost his balance, his arms wheeling backwards in a Buster Keaton homage.
The Dutch daredevil, Epke Zonderland, was up next. Whatever magic sprite inhabited him when he took his country’s first gymnastics gold with his death-defying display four years ago seems to have cruelly deserted him in the past 12 months. He missed last year’s world and European championships after separate falls left him concussed and with a broken thumb. Here he missed his second catch. He landed flat on his face on the mat, and stayed there for some time like a KO-ed fighter.
Wilson had seen the fall, but it didn’t faze him. Things don’t tend to, as he proved in the team final, delivering a nerveless high bar display when all of Britain’s hopes were resting on him. He is an effervescent, cheerful presence in the men’s team and his joy at making his Olympic debut has been apparent throughout. “That’s all I focus on, going out there and enjoying myself. What’s the point if you’re not having fun?” said Wilson
And this men’s team do have a lot of fun. One of their favourite downtime activities is playing silly pranks on each other, and Wilson had come home to his bathroom this week to discover that Louis Smith had glued all his toiletries to the surfaces. It was fairly trusting of Smith, then, to allow Wilson to wield the clippers as he groomed himself for the pommel final. His man bun has never been more vulnerable.
But it was a very different Wilson on display here. He went through his routine steadily, even cautiously. A couple of split-second decisions on the bar caused him to play it safe, resulting in a difficulty score two-tenths lower than in qualification. He landed his full twisting double saltow dismount so perfectly that he was punching the air and yelling “come on” while his legs were still bent.
In the end it was last man up, Danell Leyva, the American who had already taken silver in the parallel bars final to Ukraine’s Oleg Verniaev earlier in the afternoon, who stole second place behind Hambüchen. “That’s how much British gymnastics has come on,” said a philosophical Wilson. “How incredible it is that we’re actually disappointed with bronze medal now.”
He already has big plans to upgrade it. Wilson does not lack confidence. After he finished an impressive eighth in his Olympic debut all-around competition, he told Max Whitlock, the new champion, that he planned to be up there with him in four years time.
In the stands, his mum, dad and sister were watching, “crying their eyes out”, as Wilson joked afterwards. The stadium announcer had tracked down his dad, Neil, in the stands before the medal ceremony had even begun. “I think we’re going to have a few beers,” he announced to the crowd. “We’re going to dance to some Brazilian music, that’s the only way.”
And if they encounter any wet concrete on their way home, you know what they’ll do.
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