Vaulting Toward a Shot at Olympic Gold
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because his backstory is medal-worthy in itself.
By Tracy Moran
He’s tall, thin and very ginger, with just the hint of a mustache on a pasty-white face, a byproduct of spending endless hours at the gym since he was a tot. He tells OZY that the chalk-filled environment — tinged with the smell of both sweat and hope — is his “second home,” and it’s where Tony Duchars works every day to perfect his techniques on the mat, vault, bars and pommel horse.
It’s a routine that has made Duchars one of the best gymnasts ever to vault out of his tiny homeland, the U.K.’s Isle of Man, and could make him the island’s first male gymnast ever to reach the Olympics. He’s shooting for the Tokyo Games in 2020, and at just 17, is already among the best of Europe’s junior competitors in his specialty, the pommel horse, an ancient exercise routine considered one of gymnastics’ toughest and most technically demanding events. Duchars has shown a flair for the combination of acrobatic strength and balletic grace it takes to elegantly travel, straddle and circle the 14-inch-wide, almost 4-foot-high apparatus for a minute or more each time out.
Duchars is confident, deep-voiced and serious. His mother, Clare, says he’s always been this way. She remembers her then-5-year-old son tossing aside invites to friends’ birthday parties, opting to train instead. “He had to be the best,” says Helen Duggan, a coach at Duchars’ first gymnastics club, recalling how he was obsessed with the mushroom — a pommel horse trainer — as soon as he tried it. “You just knew he was gonna be something else.”
Medals mean money in this sport, and that’s hopefully what I can do.
Success in his sport requires a brutal regimen. Elite gymnasts train 30 hours or more a week, and the physical toll goes beyond aching muscles; gymnasts are routinely injured, and many, including Duchars, develop degenerative disk disorders. For Duchars and his mother, chasing Olympic dreams has also meant giving up their home on the island that its 85,000 inhabitants call Ellan Vannin — and Duchars’ coach Paul Hall jokingly calls “that rock in the middle of the Irish Sea” — to train in Great Britain.
It was clear early on that the talented Manx redhead would require top-level coaching, not something easily found on the Isle of Man. In a stroke of luck, a former top British coach arrived on the island, and by age 8, Duchars was entering U.K. competitions. He was set to start training twice yearly at one of Britain’s top gyms when his coach died suddenly. Other local coaches urged Clare to get her son to the mainland, so the two began taking long boat rides to England for monthly sessions in Manchester. As he steadily improved, Duchars took the next step: At age 10, he began attending a boarding school in Cambridge near Huntingdon Gymnastics Club, where Hall has helped produce five British Olympians.
Two years later, as Duchars’ talent bloomed, Clare rented out their home and joined him. Now he trains alongside two-time (2008 and 2012) Olympic medalist Louis Smith — a pommel horse specialist who won Britain’s first gymnastics Olympic medal in more than a century. Smith’s feats pulled gymnastics back into the national spotlight, and helped the U.K. attract more talent and earn a team medal at the 2012 London Games. At the 2015 World Gymnastics Championships, the team secured a 2016 Olympics berth — no small feat in a sport dominated by Japan, China, South Korea, the U.S. and Russia.
Duchars aims to be Huntingdon’s next Olympian, but not for Team Great Britain. The sport’s resurgence there means a swarm of talented young Brits are vying for a handful of spots. His mum’s Irish citizenship, though, makes him eligible to compete for Team Ireland. He has joined Ireland’s junior team and performed well in a European youth competition this past summer, missing the pommel final by a 10th of a point. Ireland’s junior coach, Ben Taylor, envisions Duchars making the senior team in time for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
An Olympic medal would be a lifelong dream for Duchars, as well as a huge boost for both Isle of Man and Irish gymnastics. Ireland’s total Olympic haul since it began competing in 1924 is relatively puny: 28 medals across all summer and winter sports. Great Britain, by contrast, has won 805 since the first modern Olympics in 1896, according to the International Olympic Committee. Isle of Man residents, who usually compete for Britain, are credited with just three medals all told, including a gold (in cycling) as recently as 2012. But that’s not bad — nearly 40 percent of the IOC’s 206 member nations haven’t medaled once.
“Medals mean money in this sport, and that’s hopefully what I can do,” Duchars says. But first he has to get to Tokyo. While many boys his age on the British junior team have tutors and can train full time, being of more modest means requires that Duchars attend school for another year. He’s hoping his new school, Huntingdon Regional College, will allow him more time at the gym, where, coaches say, he needs to work on his explosiveness. Taylor is betting that Duchars “will be at the right place at the right time, and at a good age” in 2020. If he makes it, says Isle of Man’s Helen Duggan, it would rock athletics on that little rock in the Irish Sea.