Next in our series of athlete blogs celebrating UK Black History Month, we hear from Team Scotland’s first ever Gymnastics gold medallist, Steve Frew. Steve enjoyed a 30 year career as an international gymnast, having devoted himself completely to the sport from the age of six and representing Scotland and Great Britain over 100 times, performing in 30 countries around the world.
Twice competing for GB at the World Championships, the pinnacle of Steve’s five Commonwealth Games appearances for Team Scotland came at Manchester 2002 where, competing in the Men’s Rings he made history by winning the first Commonwealth Games gold medal in Gymnastics for Scotland.
Over to Steve…
Growing up in Grangemouth in the 1970s as a mixed-race child had its challenges. Although a warm and welcoming community, when your skin colour is a different shade to the majority, you stand out. I definitely stood out from the crowd, but spent most of my early years trying to fit in with everyone else.
I was blessed to be gifted in body movement and agility. I could run fast, I could climb high, I could jump, balance and had so much hyperactive energy my Mum had to find a way to channel that. I loved the thrill of flying through the air, of balancing and body movement, and I knew quite early on that I wanted to be an acrobat.
I aspired to be like my heroes, Muhammad Ali was the biggest sports star on the planet at that time, strong, powerful, handsome, and a powerful and popular black-hero, who lived his life with purpose. He was a great champion, I wanted to be like Muhammad Ali.
My Mum thought Gymnastics would be a way I could channel my excess energy, and in 1979 at six years old my parents enrolled me for the Grangemouth Gymnastics Club. Under the mentorship of my first coach and former Great Britain gymnast Jim Bennie, I swiftly progressed. At eight years old, while competing at the East of Scotland Championships, I was spotted by the Scottish Men’s Gymnastics coach Gordon Forster and invited to trial for the Scotland squad.
At 10 years old I represented Scotland in my first international competition, and in the same year became the Under 12 Scottish Champion. From that time on I was the Scottish Champion in every age group, and eventually the Scottish Senior Champion eight consecutive times. At 14 years of age I achieved a place in the Great Britain Gymnastics Team, competing in my first Great Britain international in France at 15 years of age.
My Time Representing Team Scotland
Gymnastics was not a sport selected for the main 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. However Scotland held a “Commonwealth Gymnastics Championships” at Coasters Arena in Falkirk during 1986. As a 13 year old I was a part of the medal presentation team, holding the medals on the saltire cushions, for the dignitaries to present the medals. Just three years later, I would be a competitor representing Team Scotland at my first Commonwealth Games!
At sixteen years old, I was chosen to represent Scotland at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand. Still being at school I was the youngest member of the entire Scottish team.
We left for N.Z a few days after the New Year in January 1990. The weather in Scotland bitterly cold at that time of the year, however preparing to arrive in Auckland during their summertime would prove challenging. I would miss my exam prelims at Grangemouth High School that January although, wishing me good-luck, my teachers assured the exams would be awaiting on my return.
David Webster led the Scottish team as our “Chef de Mission” for the two days of flying time to the other side of the world. Gordon Forster, the team gymnastics coach, led our conditioning and flexibility sessions up and down the aisles of the aeroplane as we travelled.
We spent two weeks with a ‘host family’ from the Auckland Caledonian society to acclimatise before entering the athletes’ village. During our hosting experience I tasted a kiwi fruit for the first time, and our team were visited by Elaine Smith who played “Daphne” from the TV soap “Neighbours”. Elaine was supporting Team Scotland, as she was born in Ayrshire.
The greatest highlight of these games for me was the opening ceremony experience. Mt Smart Stadium was the venue, and I remember feeling great joy but overwhelmed as Team Scotland were cheered as we proudly paraded in our kilts in the presence of the Queen and Prince Philip.
I achieved the highest place of the Scotland gymnastics team and 16th position overall. I enjoyed an extended 17th birthday on the 6th February 1990 as we flew through different time zones before arriving home in Scotland.
The 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria Canada was my second appearance for Team Scotland, and I qualified for two gymnastics finals: Pommel Horse – achieving 8th place and High Bar – achieving 5th place. Having achieved two finals at the Commonwealth Games, and only two places behind a bronze medal, I was ignited by a spark of hope that perhaps it may just be possible, one day, to win a Commonwealth Games medal.
Kuala Lumpur 1998 – Disappointment
I was selected as the Gymnastics team captain for Kuala Lumpur but I was disappointed with my results at these Games. I found it very challenging to compete in the humidity of Malaysia, achieving 13th place overall. The greatest memory was the opening ceremony where again Team Scotland were assembled, proudly wearing our tartan kilts. The atmosphere outside the stadium was incredible, thousands of locals who were not able to secure a stadium ticket for the opening ceremony had created a “tunnel” lining up along the streets generating such a jubilant atmosphere that almost overtook the atmosphere inside the stadium. It was wonderful to experience!
Manchester 2002 – Greatest Moment
In the lead up to Manchester 2002 I was based in London and working as a fitness- instructor, full-time work and part – time gymnastics training. This period proved very challenging, balancing financial and family health issues whilst preparing for a Commonwealth Games. My personal coach Tan Jia En, and Team Scotland Gymnastics Lead Ian Whyte were able to provide fantastic support of which I am grateful.
It was during this period in the build up to the Commonwealth Games that I experienced the greatest person growth, which would define who I was to become.
I remember walking into the 6000 capacity GMex Arena on the 29th July 2002 for the Men’s Gymnastics Rings final. I felt like a gladiator, calm but powerful, focused, prepared and ready to face my destiny. I was the 8th gymnast of eight finalists to compete, so had to wait patiently until it was time to perform.
After years of preparation, finally my time had come. I took a deep breath, signalled to the judge I was starting my routine, and then I was lifted up onto the Rings to begin.
I scored 9.462 points for my performance on the Rings, a joint first-place with Herodotos Giorgallas of Cyprus was awarded, winning Scotland’s first Gymnastics gold medal in the history of the Commonwealth Games.
After winning Gold, I remember attending a worldwide media press conference, before being paraded outside the Team Scotland central Manchester hotel, feeling at home as I was flanked on both sides by proud highland Pipers, celebrating the historic win. The evening brought a studio interview with Hazel Irvine and John Inverdale for BBC Sport, and it was so humbling to meet Michael Johnson who offered his sincere congratulations. A week of media was coordinated by Paul and Katriona Bush, with our other Games Medallists. It was also a great pleasure to have an “Athletes Village” lunch with our then First Minister, and one of Team Scotland’s greatest supporters, Lord Jack McConnell.
It was an honour to be a Team Scotland flag bearer for the closing ceremony with Sir Chris Hoy and Craig McLean MBE. Fond memories of holding the saltire as the heavens opened during the rainy Manchester 2002 closing ceremony. We travelled back to Scotland on the Virgin sponsored train, and arrived back in Glasgow Central station to the awaiting media, press and the many Team Scotland supporters!
Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games
Melbourne 2006 was my fifth and final appearance for Team Scotland where I was again selected as the Team Scotland gymnastics captain. I qualified once again for the Rings final which was to be my final Rings performance, after which I retired from gymnastics.
After the 2006 Commonwealth Games, Dame Louise Martin invited me to join the 2014 bid team on a seven day visit to the Caribbean to promote the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games bid. I was only too happy to accept! Dame Louise, bid director Derek Casey, project manager Mike McNally and myself presented the Glasgow 2014 bid proposal to the Caribbean. We travelled to six countries, over 12 flights all in eight days … what an experience!
Glasgow 2014 to Now
Retiring from competing didn’t mean that my connection with the Commonwealth Games stopped, I was part of Glasgow 2014 as part of the Glasgow 2014 Athletes Commission, was a BBC Scotland Gymnastics/ sports event commentator for the Games and was a Glasgow 2014 Athletes’ Village Chieftain, welcoming countries and delegations as they arrived at the G2014 Athletes’ Village.
As well as continuing speaking, commentary, mentoring and fitness projects, I’m now leading philanthropy and mentoring for SportsTech Global Conference 2021, a global event fusing cutting-edge technology, sports and philanthropy in London in 2021. It’s something I’m passionate about, raising capital/funds for good causes through philanthropy and changing lives around the world.
I have been very blessed with so many different and unique experiences in my lifetime. When I found gymnastics as I child, finally I was good at “something” and I stayed committed to that “something” to see how far I could push it. Sport taught me about discipline and work-ethic, success and failure. It taught me about positive-thinking and mental strength. Sport gave me a focus, something to aim for. But I think the greatest lesson, that sport taught me is to believe in myself.
It took me four Commonwealth Games appearances to win the historic gold medal. I failed to make the podium at three Games. However, I always knew “I was more than I was achieving”. I had to believe that I could be the first person to win a gymnastics gold medal for Scotland, even when no one had achieved that before. When I was standing on the podium in Manchester in 2002, having created sporting history for Scotland, I realised that it does not matter where you come from, or about your background, or your previous circumstances in life. Focus on what you can do with what you have already got, then that will get you to where you want to be.
After all … when you’re on the Rings, eight feet off the ground and you have two straight somersaults with two twists to complete before safely landing back on your feet … then you have to stay focused on the task at hand!
Copyright Steve Frew October 2020