Gym fixes it for Avril to be a champ again

Emma LeeShe's only 32 years old, but Avril Soards is considered a veteran gymnast. A former scientist, having swapped her lab coat for a leotard, she tells EMMA LEE why it's never too late to go for gold.Emma Lee

She's only 32 years old, but Avril Soards is considered a veteran gymnast. A former scientist, having swapped her lab coat for a leotard, she tells EMMA LEE why it's never too late to go for gold.

It was a tough decision for Avril Soards to make. Focus on her academic studies or concentrate on gymnastics. She went for the former - and while she went on to study for a PhD at Cambridge University, she missed the bars, floor, beam and vault.

But, proving that it's never too late to go for gold, the 32-year-old from Gorleston has just come out on top in the British Gymnastics Veteran Championships.

Not only did she win the 30-40 age group, but she also beat everybody over the age of 19 by a whole mark.

As you can imagine, it was a moment of great pride, both for Avril and her family - despite one of her routines having a bit of an ungraceful ending.

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'I landed on my bum,' she laughs. 'I lost concentration at the end, when you think you've finished. Luckily it didn't matter.

'I went to the championships last year for the first time and came second,' she continues. 'I was beaten on an age advantage, which was really frustrating. That's why I had to go back and win it this year.

'My dad came to watch me. He hadn't watched me for about 17 years and it was so great to run over and see him when I came down off the podium. He reckons that I'm better now then when I was a kid.'

Avril started going to gymnastics when she was four years old - as a way to channel her energy.

'My mum and dad used to run a hotel, and I always used to be tumbling about while the guests were eating dinner and they needed to put me somewhere! It came really naturally,' she says.

With the perfect physique for gymnastics - she's small and strong - Avril started taking part in competitions. But when she reached her mid teens, she was torn between school and sport.

'You had to be very committed to what you were doing,' Avril says. 'I couldn't go to the parties. But all I really wanted to do was gymnastics anyway. Then the gym where I trained in Norwich burned down and that made the decision for me. Even if you get to the Olympics, it won't get you a career, so I concentrated on the academic stuff.'

But giving up gymnastics left a void in her life.

'I just really missed it,' she says. 'It's part of me and when I didn't do it I didn't feel like myself. I was training five nights a week and when I stopped there was this big gap.'

And eight years ago, while working on her PhD at Cambridge, Avril took up gymnastics again.

She then got a job working in a lab at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. But while her career was going from strength to strength - she was working for a world-leading research facility - she couldn't help feeling that she'd ended up in a different place to where she wanted to be.

'I was travelling down the east coast of Australia with three blokes in a camper van. One was going to be a medic and another a paramedic and they really loved what they were doing. That's when I made the decision to quit my job.

'I went back to UEA to study physiotherapy. It was hard giving up a job like that and being a student again, but I'm really glad I've done it. I've just finished my last placement at Northgate Hospital in Yarmouth and my idea is that I want to do physiotherapy with the British gymnastics team. I'm going to send in my CV as soon as I qualify, but I need a few years more experience.'

As you might have gathered, Avril finds it impossible to sit still for long.

'I'm competitive at everything,' she admits. 'You've got to want to win it, otherwise you're not going to train enough to be better,' she says.

As well as studying and training (she's a member of Waveney Gymnastics Club at Lowestoft) she does physio for local football clubs at weekends.

She's also done stunt work on films and appears on the extras real of the DVD of Love, Actually.

'Because I'm very small I can double for children. It was good - it's not as glamorous as you'd think. But it's an interesting thing to have done,' she says of her experience.

She also enjoys climbing, stilt walking (you might have caught a glimpse of her in this year's Lord Mayor's Procession in Norwich) and rollerblading on Gorleston seafront.

'They're all things I think I should be growing out of, but I'm still enjoying it so I don't see why I should. But if I'm still wearing a leotard when I'm 60, I should be shot,' she laughs.