There are few live sporting experiences as transformative as gymnastics in all its glory. Aside from the spectacle of the exponents twisting their compact, muscular bodies in the air, it is the sound that is most startling, the noise created by bones and muscle and momentum meeting gravity as gymnasts collide with the ground. The brisk realisation of all the horrors possible if he or she is “off” by only a millimetre.
The internet is filled with endless compilations of gymnasts crashing to the floor, but one of the most interesting offerings is from a gymnast himself. Joe Fraser’s videos, titled the Unseen Struggle, depict a normal day for him in the gym, which it turns out is just an unending series of falls. It is a sobering reminder that those pristine final routines on the biggest stages are a product of hundreds of failures and that chasing perfection is dangerous and exhausting.
“It’s something that I felt I’ve struggled with over the years but I’m lucky I have training partners that see the direction of where the routines are going,” he says . “We have an eight-week preparation for competitions. There’s always been one week, between age 11 until now, that I would cry. I would always cry for a whole week. I would feel like I wasn’t getting anywhere, and then the week after that things would come together. That’s kind of what gymnastics is. You have to push yourself for the hard times to get to the good times.”
Fraser points out that all gymnasts learn from a young age how to fall safely, but injuries are always looming. One of the most difficult periods of his career occurred in 2018 as he prepared for the Commonwealth Games. A shoulder injury had stunted preparation for the trials and so he was rushing, working even harder, fighting against time. After one dismount from the high barhe landed half off the mat and an ankle rolled, dislocating under his weight.
“I had to have surgery. I got back within three months of the injury, which was unheard of. I was told it would take me up to six. Knowing when I wanted to get back, I pushed myself in rehab. I kind of had something in my head that said: ‘OK, Joe, you can’t use your ankle but let’s make sure your real strength can improve.’ That’s the way I saw the injury and tried to motivate myself further,” he says.
The setback proved to be an essential part of his growth as he matured into his gymnastics in 2019 and surprised the world by finishing eighth in the all-around final before winning a gold medal on parallel bars at the world championships. At 20, Fraser became the third and youngest British gymnastics world champion. As he stood dazed before his BBC interviewer afterwards, he was shocked by the revelation that he was GB’s first black male gold medallist.
“It means so much, knowing the kind of impact that a lot of gymnasts have had,” he says, smiling on the video link. “The likes of Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, John Orozco. The kind of influence they’ve had on me, even now. Knowing that I’m one of those people now and [that] a lot of black gymnasts look up to me would be amazing.”
Fraser’s success naturally means that he attracts more attention now, but perhaps the greatest measure of his potential is how uninterested he is in constantly reliving the past. “For me, I don’t want to get sucked into the ‘I’m the world champion’. I want to be chasing, I want to be hungry and trying to improve that routine, improve my overall apparatus to be the best gymnast that I can. I don’t want to plateau. I want to keep pushing myself.”
The time to push himself will soon come again, but not yet. He was speaking at home in Edgbaston and as a figurehead of the new #PresentForPounds challenge, a fundraising campaign launched by British Gymnastics for NHS Charities Together. As his training is restricted by the coronavirus crisis, Fraser has been creative and patient, even practising ring exercises hanging from a tree in the park.
Although his motivation has occasionally wavered, he is driven because of what is still to come. When he was a child he once shaved the Olympic rings into his trim during a summer holiday as he dreamed of what his future could be. Today those big dreams have evolved into simple goals.