LAURA HALFORD is relishing her new role as poster girl for the sport of rhythmic gymnastics after winning three medals for Wales at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Since concluding her competition on Saturday, the 18-year-old from Cricklade has been on a giddy round of TV, radio and newspaper interviews – and she is loving it.
She has even made a convert of her younger brother Tom, who was in the arena on all three days with her mum, dad and uncles.
“Tom used to think that my competitions were boring,” said Laura, “but mum and dad told me that he was up and cheering the whole time.”
As for the sudden constant media attention, she said: “I love it and I hope it helps more people to get involved in my sport.
“Rhythmic Gymnastics (with its disciplines of hoop, ball, clubs and ribbon) has always had a lower profile than Artistic Gymnastics (floor exercises, beam, vaults etc) because the home nations have had a strong tradition in them.
“But our coaches have told us that already there has been a rush of children wanting to try our sport on the back of Wales’ success.”
Halford, a student at New College, Swindon, will have to lead the fight herself after the retirement of the senior member of the Welsh team, Frankie Jones, who finished her career on a spectacular high.
Though Laura twice beat her more experienced team-mate to retain her British and Welsh titles earlier this season, Jones got her timing just right on the big occasion to collect medals in all six competitions she entered, including an emotional gold medal in the individual ribbon which closed her career at the tender age of 23.
“Frankie has just been amazing and has worked so hard to come back from numerous setbacks,” said Laura “She has also really looked after myself and Nikara (Jenkins) at our first Games.”
While most elite athletes are plotting their route to Rio and the next Olympics in 2016, Laura’s focus will be two years further down the road, the Commonwealth Games of 2018 on the Gold Coast of Australia.
“It is going to be hard even to qualify for Rio as the competition is so strong with countries like Russia and Belarus dominating the sport, so I am thinking further ahead to Australia,” she said.
“To some extent Glasgow was for experience as it was the first time that I had ever competed at a major Games and in front of such a big audience.
“Our preparation had gone so well and my routines had come together so nicely that we knew we had a chance of a team medal – we just did not know what colour.
“But to follow up that team silver with a bronze in both the individual all-round competition and the individual ball surprised me.
“I have been consistent all year and I was again in Glasgow. I was proud of myself for being able to control my nerves in the big arena.
“It was only in my last routine – the individual ribbon on Saturday – that I felt myself being mentally and physically tired after three days of constant action.”
Now Laura is relaxing and able to enjoy some other great successes for the Welsh national team.
“I have just had hundreds of messages via text and Twitter, a lot from people I don’t even know, and I love doing all the various TV interviews,” said Laura.
There has been little chance to let her hair down but she has had her ears re-pierced after being presented with a pair of celebratory earrings by the Welsh coaches.
At the Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010, it was the inspiration of Frankie Jones’ solitary silver medal that convinced a then-14-year-old Laura Halford she wanted to get to the top in rhythmic gymnastics. With Laura now assuming the senior role from Frankie in future Welsh teams, the search starts for a new third member of the squad who will need to be up to speed by Australia in 2018, when a 22-year-old Laura should be at her peak.
“We’ve got four years to find her,” admitted Laura.
If she can turn her disinterested younger brother Tom on to rhythmic gymnastics anything is possible. BIBURY athlete Lawrence Clarke finished last in the final of the 110 metres hurdles won by Jamaica’s Andrew Riley with Will Sharman of England in the silver medal position.
Clarke, in the outside lane, appeared to be closing on the leaders with an outside chance of a bronze medal, when he clattered into two consecutive hurdles late on, losing all chance of a prominent finish.