One of four young gymnasts selected to represent Scotland as the sport made its Commonwealth Games debut in 1978, Karen Forbes went on to compete into her 50s in veteran’s gymnastics and is still actively involved in coaching the sport. For our Sport Focus series she gives us a fascinating insight into Gymnastics’ debut Games in Edmonton, how the sport has changed and her subsequent career in cancer and palliative care medicine.
“I started gymnastics when my PE teacher at my primary school started a little gym club. I was relatively late starting because I was probably 9 or 10 then, and I vividly remember at lunch time there would be this little stretch of carpet in the entrance way of the school and we would do back flips with a chair cushion on the floor so I wouldn’t bang my head. The teacher thought I had potential so I started travelling the 20 miles each way to go to Tameside Olympic Gym Club in Stalybridge to train and it all took off from there.
“I liked the challenge and I loved the artistry and grace of it. I loved being part of a team but was always very aware that, whilst you were competing for the team, once you got on to the Floor, Beam or Bars, the only person that could do it was you. I liked that individual within the team element of it all.
“I count myself lucky that I competed at a time when artistry and grace really counted. I was training during and coming up to the ‘72 and ‘76 Olympics so we had Olga Korbut and I found it really fascinating, because the crowd would go mad when Korbut finished and the gymnasts would go mad for Tourischeva. I just adored Tourischeva and Elvira Saadi because they were just so graceful and talented in a different way to the tricks that Korbut did. More recently I think Svetlana Khorkina was just amazing, but she had everything of course, she could do the amazing skills but was also just beautiful to look at. Simone Biles is extraordinary but she’s an acrobat not a gymnast; there’s not as much artistry about it. It’s a different sport now, but I still love watching it.
“It was probably a couple of years before Edmonton that suddenly there was talk about selection for the Commonwealth Games, which of course hadn’t been relevant before. I was competing nationally for Great Britain at the time and it was my coach Bill Mclaughlin who got in touch with the Scottish lead coach and I started travelling up to squad training in Scotland. So, just before I was 16, I was getting on a train and going Macclesfield to Manchester, Manchester to Glasgow and Glasgow to Largs on my own, which at the time actually felt pretty big and scary. It was a long way to travel on your own and I did that from ’76 up to the Games in 1978. Being selected was very exciting, a bit scary, but mainly exciting because, having trained with the other girls for a couple of years, I knew them well and I knew the coaches well, so it was just a real adventure.
“I’d travelled, but only with my family to France, so it was a very long flight to Edmonton. I’d done GB trips before, but this time you turn up at the airport and there’s just hundreds of people wearing the same tracksuit as you and all this baggage. We flew out of Prestwick and there was lots of chat and just gently getting to know each other on the plane, which was amazing because when you go on a gym trip you know your tiny team really well and now suddenly there’s just all these people, which was exciting and a bit daunting. But it made the journey go quickly, it was lots and lots of new experiences.
“At the Games two things stood out. One was the friendliness of the Games, everybody was having a great time. Yes, they were training hard and were going to compete hard but there was just this real feeling of everybody wanting everyone else to do the best they could. The second was that I was just a bit blown away by the diversity of the competitors. There were two girls competing in Gymnastics and they were from South East Asia, I can’t remember the actual country, but they’d never seen a beam before!
“They were going to do single bar routines because they’d never had asymmetric bars and they’d never seen a beam so they were only going to compete three pieces. They were in the same training group as us so we taught them a simple mount, a walk along the beam and a simple dismount so that on the day they could compete all four pieces. They were absolutely lovely and so excited, but that’s extraordinary isn’t it, how someone would learn to get on and off a beam and compete that for the first time ever at the Commonwealth Games. It was just mind-blowing.
“My own competition went so fast; it went by in a blur. I remember being horribly, horribly nervous in a way that I hadn’t been before. I remember Floor and Beam being absolutely fine, but Floor and Beam normally were for me. I remember being slightly disappointed with my Bars because I had been training a full twisting Hecht dismount and we decided that I would just go for it. So I did, but I landed with my chest nearly on the floor and I had to rescue it. That’s terrible isn’t it, that’s the main thing I remember about the Commonwealth Games – just rescuing a not terribly elegant landing from bars!
“I had never been in a stadium that big before, the lights were just so bright, there was so many people, and the noise was incredible. I remember Avril Lennox, who used to be British Champion early on when I was training, saying to somebody, ‘if the fire alarm went off while I was on the beam, I would finish my routine before I realised,’ and to me it did feel a bit like that. You just suddenly became aware of all your surroundings once you finished your routine. But it was great being part of the team and encouraging the others, you felt responsible for them, as well as looking after yourself.
“The biggest thing I took from the experience was that you can be really scared about something but you can master that, and you can do it. I guess it’s the achievement of getting past something that made you so scared, that you thought might make you sick, but going out there and getting it done.
“We didn’t see a lot of Edmonton itself , it did tend to be that bubble of eat, sleep, training, gym, bit of walking around the village then eat, sleep, training, gym. But we did a trip afterwards in big traditional Canadian Buses and went off to the Rockies. I remember vividly going up to Lake Louise and that was just so beautiful, so lovely. I’ve been to the Rockies since and sort of came around the corner and saw this view of Lake Louise and suddenly ‘oh my goodness’, I was back there as a seventeen-year-old.
“After the Games I went and did my degree and graduated in 1984. I had done a placement in my final year which was in a cancer centre, and that was it, that was absolutely what I wanted to do. I wanted to look after people with cancer. I did three years of training in cancer medicine and then realised it wasn’t cancer I wanted to do at all, it was palliative care. I worked in palliative care, first in Cardiff and then in Leeds, finished my training and came down to Bristol to become a consultant. My lightbulb moment was realising that, while I could make a difference to the patient in front of me if I was a good palliative care physician, I can make a difference to far more people if I teach other people how to do this well. So, I went into academic palliative medicine in Bristol. I’m now a Professor of Palliative Medicine and I run all the cancer and palliative care teaching for the Bristol Undergraduate Programme. I’ve just been appointed as the co-programme director so, I currently do 50% NHS, 50% University.
“I have published papers about palliative and end of life care and published a book called ‘Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Doctors’ which brings together these extraordinary reflective pieces written by final year students, reflecting on something that happened during their first experience on the ward alongside junior doctors.
“I competed in Gymnastics as a veteran and I was British Veteran Champion three times. One of my proudest moments was discovering at age 52 or 53 that I could still do 10 long upstarts in a row. I’ve hung up the leotard again. I competed up until 2 years ago and then I had a bit of an injury, not a bad one but when I went back into the gym I suddenly was scared, and I hadn’t been scared all that time. I started to say, ‘you don’t have to do this, you don’t have to scare yourself anymore, why don’t you just keep coaching and hang up the leotard?’ My son Sam competed in Gymnastics until he was 17 and my youngest son Tom competed in trampoline until he was about 14, so there was something in the genes I think.
“I’m most proud of giving something back in terms of coaching, having encouraged others into the sport and into loving a sport that I have loved for a long time. You’re coaching these kids to do upstarts and they just don’t get it, they don’t get it and they don’t get it, then suddenly they get it and you think to yourself, yes!
“I’m absolutely certain that I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t done Gymnastics. It teaches you so many skills and you learn self-belief, time management, the ability to master your fear and go for it anyway, team working skills. I think at its core it’s about the self-belief really. I can do this even though it looks big and scary from the outside. Gymnastics has very much been part of shaping the person I’ve become.”