Gymnast Joe Fraser on Tokyo Olympics countdown, mental health, and big ambitions

May 22, 2020

Parallel bars world champion and Sky Sports Scholar Joe Fraser should have been in the final few months of preparation towards Tokyo.

Instead, he has had to wind back his countdown another year on his quest to become an Olympic gold medallist.

Fraser is one of 10,000 athletes who have had to readjust their training programmes to hit peak physical condition for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, after the biggest sporting event in the world was postponed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 21-year-old from Birmingham admits it was hard to accept the news at first, but he is now preparing mentally and physically to achieve his big ambitions in Japan next year instead.

"Honestly, it's a very weird situation to be in," Fraser tells Sky Sports News. "I've had a countdown in my room for Tokyo for a year-and-a-half, so I've been used to seeing those days go down and then all of a sudden, it's gone up by a year. It's crazy!

"It took a while for me to get used to hearing that, but now I've got it fixed in my head that's when the Olympic Games will be and that's when I'll be at my peak fitness. It's given me an opportunity to reflect on what I want to improve on in this period of time.

"Right now, I don't know when I'll get back to full training or when I'll start competing again, so I'm just using this time to work on myself, and think about the opportunities I have to work on my all-around score. But the Olympic Games is still the main focus.

"For next summer, I really want the team to do well. I'd love the team to get a medal. That would be amazing!

"Personally, I'd love to get an all-around medal and win parallel bars. Those are the main things for me but I know there are lots of things that have to happen before that, so I'm staying motivated now to keep working, and I know that'll make it easier when we do eventually get back to training."

Olympic champion? 'Talk it into existence'

Since Louis Smith won bronze on the pommel horse at Beijing 2008, British gymnastics has enjoyed an "amazing generation" of athletes, consequently winning 10 Olympic medals in London and Rio.

Despite competing on all apparatus, Fraser specialises in the parallel bars event, in which he became world champion in October - the youngest-ever Briton to win a world title and the first-ever black male to win a gold medal at the competition.

However, no Team GB gymnast has won an Olympic medal on the parallel bars, let alone a gold, and when asked if he could become the first, Fraser replied: "Definitely. Why not? You always hear 'talk it into existence' so I guess I'm trying to do that.

"If you'd have asked me 12 months ago my aims for Tokyo, they would have probably been pretty different. But I feel the way my training has been going and the competitions I've delivered in, I feel like these are realistic goals.

"When I won that World Championships last year, the first thing Max [Whitlock] said to me was, 'you'll never get used to hearing that you're the World Champion,' and he was so right!"

'Training needs to be safe before return'

Although his big plans are on hold, Fraser will hopefully be returning to full training soon, as government guidelines now allow small groups of elite athletes to train, providing social distancing is adhered to.

Despite Fraser's excitement to get back into the gym, he does have concerns about the hygiene of apparatus he would have to share with his training partners.

He said: "Right now, they're just trying to figure out the safest way we can get back. So at the moment, I'm still doing what I can at home, and I'm just trying to remain positive.

"It's one of those sports where you're very hands on. Me and my training partners would end up touching the same equipment, so we have to make sure it's the safest way for us to come back and make sure everyone in that environment is as safe as they possibly can be.

"British Gymnastics are doing what they can to make sure it's a priority, and the same for my coaches and training partners. We all just want the best for each other."

'Come together, talk about mental health'

Fraser has battled mental challenges throughout his career as an elite sportsman, whether it be recovering from a severe ankle injury, frustration in the gym, or coping with the lockdown and subsequent disappointment of a delayed Olympics.

He insists the current Mental Health Awareness Week is vital in encouraging people to talk about their problems.

Fraser said: "It's so, so important. I know a lot of people that have had mental struggles and it's not easy to talk about but I think it's essential that we do have these conversations and we do make it aware that it's not just you going through these struggles. We all can talk about our own struggles.

"Having this Mental Health Awareness Week, I think it's going to be a really great opportunity for this to really come to light and we can all come together and talk about our issues and see a way of making them easier.

"I've had, and everyone has had, moments when they feel like they're struggling and they're finding it hard to keep going for something they enjoy.

"I'm always here for anyone that has any problems with mental health and I've always tried to be able to speak to them if they're having these kind of problems in the gym or whatever. It's very close to my heart."

If you're affected by issues related to mental wellbeing or want to talk, please contact the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123, or visit the website.

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