With around twenty percent of the world’s population currently experiencing some degree of lockdown, urged by government to remain indoors and cease all communal activity, we find ourselves in an unprecedented moment of collective lethargy, bound to our sofas and looking wistfully outdoors.
In response, we bring you a collection of the sportier moments from HERO’s archives, where Olympic-hopefuls, weekend racers and seasoned fanatics all rub shoulders, to ease your twitching limbs. Pumped-up teens colliding on ice in Canada’s junior hockey leagues, petrol-heads flying over dunes on dirt bikes and rodeo prodigies riding bulls in Montana, these images remind us of the freedoms we take for granted, and which for the coming months we may be forced to go without.
We begin with GB Olympic gymnast Nile Wilson, who starred in HERO 18. After taking home a bronze medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics and two golds in the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Wilson has proved an energised figure within the sport, encouraging newcomers via his YouTube channel and social media.
It’s easy to forget that each one of Nile Wilson’s effortless rotations, flips, spins, dismounts are the result of years of fine- tuning. The sound of watching him train is like a pre-determined series of soft, rhythmical patterns: creak, creak, exhale, silence, creak, PAT as his feet land perfectly square on the mat.
All that prep served him well, in Rio’s 2016 Olympics Wilson took bronze for Great Britain – the country’s first ever medal on the horizontal bar. With a YouTube channel sucking millions of views, Wilson is determined to bring his unique brand of gymnastics to the masses.
James West: So how did you first get started?
Nile Wilson: Well it’s not really related, but my mum used to do gymnastics. James: That’s pretty related! Nile: Well, I mean it didn’t have correlation to me starting… the reason I started was that I was very clumsy when I was four. I’ve got three scars on my head from splitting it up as a young kid. Apparently I just fell over my own shadow, which I still do… but it was to teach me some spacial awareness.
JW: And was that here in Leeds?
NW: No, It was just local. I live in Pudsey, it was just a local gym class once a week. Then I went to summer camp at a gymnastics club, and they kind of just spotted me.
JW: How old were you then?
NW: I was five then. I just loved it, I was the heart pumping, no matter what age.
JW: Do you still get that now? Now that you’re so slick at everything?
NW: Yes, everyday. To an extent you become confident and comfortable with the skills that you learn, but imagine all those skills that I’ve done today, that you’ve seen me do, it’s after years and years of practice, perfecting, learning, seeing, feeling. Although it’s my job to make it look easy I’ve still got to have 100% concentration on what I’m doing, ‘cause I’m swinging around a steel bar and letting go…
JW: So in gymnastics is there a set list of all the different skills that you can achieve?
NW: I can talk about it in a bit, but one of my goals is to get my own skill and code of points… I have got something in the pipeline which I’m not allowed to talk about! It’s secret! obsessed with gymnastics – still am.
JW: What are you so drawn to?
NW: I think that you become addicted to improving, the sport is so unique. I was obviously an active kid. I was doing everything else, playing football, playing rugby, playing cricket. But no one off the street can just do what gymnasts do, and that was something that captured my eye. Just being so in tune with your body, learning how to move your body in that way – it becomes obsessive.
JW: Do you ever feel that you get something perfectly right, or do you never feel that?
NW: I think that’s part of the buzz as well, I get goosebumps when I hit a routine or when I learn a new skill. And also, you’re going through daily adrenaline rushes, and fear and overcoming fear… from the age of five. It gets the heart pumping, no matter what age.
JW: So in gymnastics is there a set list of all the different skills that you can achieve?
NW: I can talk about it in a bit, but one of my goals is to get my own skill and code of points… I have got something in the pipeline which I’m not allowed to talk about! It’s secret!
Fabien Kruszelnicki: A code of points?
NW: Yeah, so gymnastics has a code of points, men’s and women’s, and each skill has a value and that’s how you create a routine. So a routine is ten skills on each apparatus, including the dismount, and there are specific requirements for each of those ten skills to get a score. Each skill has a value that’s added up. Usually a score of fifteen is a very good score but the system is hard to explain – that is one of the challenges gymnastics faces, because in terms of the public, it’s incredible to watch but people don’t get the system and the scoring.
I think that it’s gone too far. It used to be out of ten which is probably the easiest thing to understand, you know, ten is the best. But because of the variety and range of skills now, and the ability in what everyone’s doing, you can’t mark it out of ten anymore because some gymnasts perform routines with massive difficulty, but also great execution.
FK: Just from my experience from going to school here in the UK, gymnastics isn’t really one of the sports you do, and it’s not really an easy sport to get into. I guess it’s not really seen as a ‘guy’s sport’ sometimes, but it looks grueling, it’s not easy…
NW: Definitely. I think that it has been hard with the whole stereotype of it being a girl’s sport. Particularly when growing up you know, you’re wearing leotards… But when you compare it to – I don’t want to slag off any of the other sports – but when you compare gymnastics, it’s hardcore. When you watch what we do it’s like, holy shit, the hands are bleeding, they’re in pain.
FK: How do you get younger people involved? Is it just about showing it to them?
NW: For me it’s about social media at the minute, we’re just in such an exciting time with the digital age, and the fact that I can post a video online and get about three million views, it’s just mind-blowing.
“I can do well out of my sport, because we don’t have footballers wages… I’m very motivated by trying to create a great lifestyle for myself and my family.”
FK: When did you start that? I liked that when we were talking earlier you said, “You’ve just got make stuff and not be a perfectionist about it.” When did you start making films?
NW: I did my first YouTube video when I was about eleven. Everyone thinks, “Ah yes… you’ve blown up overnight,” but it’s actually through the process of years and years of hard work. It’s something that I’ve loved to do since I was young, I’ve made montages and literally got a crappy camera and filmed some stuff in the gym. Video editing and film creation is something that I’ve always been passionate about.
I probably started full on maybe during mid-2015. Now I’ve got nearly a quarter of a million followers and millions of hits, but back then I was doing the same thing, getting 800 views, 900 views, 1,000. It wasn’t about the reach, it was just that it’s something that I really enjoyed, but then also that I was helping so many people, and even if out of those 800 people, if 80 got something from it. And now it’s the fact that it could be 80,000…you know, I get emails everyday saying, “You’ve changed my life” – that is another massive motivator for me, it’s an incredible feeling in itself.
FK: Do you ever have a chance to meet these people or speak to them? You can’t reply to everyone unfortunately.
NW: I do, I reply to every single email. It takes time, but it’s something that I want to do. My sister helps, she spends hours every day replying to my YouTube comments.
JW: That’s a nice sister!
NW: I guess it took off because I’m pretty normal, relatable.
JW: You don’t have that douchebaggy vibe. The other nice thing in your films is that everyone in them seems up for it. Your friends don’t mind being in it, which is nice, you get that sense of camaraderie. It’s nice to watch something online where people are trying to make themselves better and sharing that.
NW: I always wanted to be a bit different. When I started making videos back then, I was taken the piss out of all the time. Now like, 30–50% of the squad are doing the same thing. I was never bitter about it, I just cracked on with what I wanted to do. I also started to realise that I could use it commercially as well, and that’s what I’m starting to do now. I realised I can build a business, I can do well out of my sport, because we don’t have footballers wages… I’m very motivated by trying to create a great lifestyle for myself and my family.
JW: I think that it’s the same across a lot of different industries now, people are just making it happen for themselves, rather than relying on a TV channel or a record label to do it for them. So you launched The Body Bible [a subscription service], it wasn’t that long ago?
NW: January this year.
FK: How’s it going?
NW: Very well.
JW: You already share a lot of knowledge in your free videos, how do you decide what to put in there and what you’re going to ask people to sign up to see?
NW: The business side is exciting, it’s a new thing for me, and I’m learning every single day. I could be doing loads of things better probably, but also I’ve done a lot of things right. But one of the main things is giving. I don’t think I can ever give too much away, no matter how much I give away, if there is a product there, people are still going to buy it because they build trust with you. As a business strategy, I’d rather do that, to keep giving giving giving, and then ask, “Can you buy my product?”
JW: There’s so much crap in terms of fitness articles and videos, re-hashing of the same impossible ideas like ‘how to get fit in five days’… and none of it has much value, but you seem to be pretty practical about everything.
NW: My unique thing is the gymnastics… and I believe that if you do it you’ll fucking love it, and your bodies will be in the best shape ever. That’s my selling point, just convincing you to start. If you look at any gymnast in the world, they’ve all got abs, they’ve all got muscles. It’s not because we’re bodybuilders or super-humans, it’s because we do gymnastics every day, it’s part of the job, it’s a nice perk to be able to look good. That style of training works, so I’m trying to convince everyone. But also, how much fun it is, instead of going to the gym, walking on the treadmill, pedalling on the bike. Spending an hour trying to figure out how to stand on your hands is so much more exciting.
JW: Do you think in general there should be more places you can go and learn gymnastics? How can you start if you want to do it?
NW: Exactly… that’s the hard thing as well. I got told that there are over a million kids on waiting lists in Britain.
JW: Really? So they need more investment?
NW: There aren’t enough coaches. Coaching is hard as well because it’s not well paid, even on the Olympic level. But ten years ago when I started competing in London there would be forty-five people, which were all our parents, now we’re selling out at the O2 Arena.
“There aren’t enough coaches. Coaching is hard as well because it’s not well paid, even on the Olympic level.”
JW: Why are more people interested?
NW: Social media, and also British Gymnastics grew as a company, and we’ve got more gyms. That’s another one of my ventures, I want to set up my own gym, so parents can bring their kids to learn while they work out.
FK: What do you get on the Body Bible if you join?
NW: At the minute we’ve decided to go on a monthly subscription, with the idea that I can consistently just pump out content forever… currently there’s a handstand programme, a muscle-up programme, a planche programme – all the kind of calisthenic gymnastics movements that as a beginner you would learn. The key one is the handstands.
JW: Handstands seems to be a central thing.
NW: Handstands are number one. So that’s one of the best programs out there, ever, with what we’ve sat down, worked out and put together. You can do it all at home, you don’t need any equipment. Then there’s a section on flexibility, very important—and that links to yoga, there’s a section on nutrition and how it affects your performance and mindset. And I’ve tried to be really transparent, I’ve told the YouTube viewers that I’m starting a business, and it’s called the Body Bible and this is my idea, and I’m 21. That’s a journey as well, people follow me because they want to see a 21-year-old build a business.
Fabien: What’s your general week, or year, like?
Nile: So, in a general week I train around 25–35 hours depending on the time and the season. The hours are quite relaxed. At this point we’re more smart about it, it’s not hours, hours, hours, or miles, miles, miles, it’s kinda get in the gym, get done what you need to get done, and get out and recover.
JW: Who works out the programme for you? Do you do it in conjunction with coaches?
NW: Yeah, communication with the coaches, but I’m at the stage now where the guys are like, “Well, Nile is the one who has to do it, it’s his body.” Over the years you learn what works, what doesn’t work, how you feel, what weight you feel good at, what food to eat to make you feel good. You’re so in tune with your body. So it’s two sessions most days then I have a half-day on a Wednesday and a weekend.
FK: So you train every day?
NW: Six days a week, I currently have Saturday off. Then when we go on squad, it’s a 9.30 start in the morning… 9.30–1pm.
JW: What’s squad?
NW: Where we go to our national centre, the top gymnasts in the country come. So all the guys on the Olympic programme. It’s good to see the team, it’s once a month for a week on average, sometimes more when we’re close to majors, we’ll be there for four weeks.
JW: There are obviously the Olympics, which everyone knows about. Are there lots of other contests for gymnasts inbetween?
NW: It depends on the year, the season, this year there wasn’t as much, it was the British Championships, the Europeans and Worlds are the majors every year. Obviously next year we’ve got the Commonwealth Games as well, so next year we’ll be busy. At Christmas time you can recover, in summer you don’t recover. We go on a strength programme to try and increase strength, and I’ll still be doing similar hours if not more hours when I’m not in competition.
JW: So does it feel different to train in different places?
Nile: The parallel bars are pretty set but everyone has their own width, with the high bar the bounce is affected by how tight the wires are. But everyone likes it different. When I did the world Olympic final, everyone’s got a different tension.
JW: So they change it for each person? Do you come in with a bit of paper…that’s like, “That’s what I want.”
NW: You get a gauge and it measures the tightness. Or some have just a block that you slide up and down, so you kind of know where you have it. And then when you go to a major, it’s in an arena on a podium, with a roof which is ten times the height of a gym. That’s like, weird.
“The parallel bars are pretty set but everyone has their own width, with the high bar the bounce is affected by how tight the wires are. But everyone likes it different.”
JW: I don’t want to dwell it but I know you injured your ankle. How’s recovery going?
NW: I vlogged the rehab journey and it’s helped so much. I was very honest and transparent through that, I let people know when I was struggling. It’s not the first time – I’ve had wrist surgery, I’ve had fractures in my back, I’ve had shoulder ligaments torn, I’ve had shin splints, but I think you just crack on. The love for gymnastics is always bigger, and the end goal is always bigger, the Olympic medal is worth every single bit of pain.
JW: The one that’s lovingly tucked into your shoe over there? Where do you normally keep it? Do you keep it on a little plinth?
NW: I take it around with me to schools – I’d rather that it’s been scratched, because it’s got its wear out of it.
FK: So what’s kind of next? How many Olympics do gymnasts usually get through?
NW: It’s usually two or three, but it’s different for everyone. I think eventually, as an all- rounder it’s tough because of the demand on your body to do all six events. Obviously Lewis [Smith] is a good example, he just does the pommel horse now.
JW: So you can just do one?
NW: You can specialise, I’ll probably eventually do that. I’ll continue to do this sport as long as my body lets me, and as long as I’m still loving it, the enjoyment is one of the biggest things for me. I’ve got to be having fun.