Belfast Telegraph

Rathgael and Rio the twin peaks for gritty Luke

Gymnast's big plans for Bangor club as he hopes to keep Olympic dream alive

By David Kelly

For every serious sportsman reaching out for the dream is a race against the reality of when the distance is simply too great. Luke Carson can now feel the cold breath of retirement beginning to swirl around his broad gymnastic shoulders but his desire still burns.

The 25-year-old has had two torturous years of injury and operations within which he somehow managed to qualify for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow - and he remains determined to make it to the 2016 Olympics. But he admits the window of opportunity for Rio will be closed at the end of December if a stress fracture in his leg - the core of all his pain and anxiety - does not heal once and for all.

"I am still training, I haven't given up on Rio but I know that the stress fracture may never heal and if it hasn't healed by the end of December then Rio will be out and that will be the end of my career but I don't even want to think about that," said Carson, whose career almost ended in 2013 after shattering his tibia in training.

"I couldn't take the risk of competing and training again because I don't want to end up crippled, there's only so many times you can have your leg restructured... so at the moment I am letting it rest, I am just working on my upper body to give the leg the best chance to heal.

"Now I am based here I have a consultant at the Ulster Clinic who is monitoring it. The latest X ray showed there is a fracture a quarter of the way up my leg.

"If I didn't get going to the Olympics it would be really tough to take because ever since I was a six year old I dreamed about going to the big championships and of course the Olympics - and the Olympics is the one big void. So the one thing that would make it a happy Christmas for me is for this stress fracture to heal.

"I still have nightmares about not going to the Olympics, I feel that it's a big part of my life that is missing and I really want the chance to make it there... I have British and Irish medals, Northern European medals. I have proven that I am prepared to push myself to the limit but I don't want to end up crippled."

But while he waits to see if one more shot at the Olympics is possible, Carson has already taken a step into his long term future, as head coach of the Rathgael Gymnastics club in Bangor - and takes the reins with all the gusto with which he has held the rings in international competition across the world.

"The last two years have been very difficult for me with injuries, and it came to the point where my coach Paul Hall said to me that I had to start thinking about the future and what I would do after gymnastics. He is vastly experienced and has seen many gymnasts get caught up in the moment, the flying to different countries, the whole experience... and that is great but he didn't want me to get stuck when it came to an end so he said to start thinking about what I would do and the one thing I wanted to do was coaching.

"I initially mentioned it to a few people that I was interested in coaching and the word seemed to spread like wildfire, so within three or four weeks I had offers from South Africa to be a head coach, from Dublin to help with Irish swimming's diving set-up and Rathgael - I was quite overwhelmed to be honest.

"I spoke to everyone, a guy from South Africa flew to England to meet me but after speaking to the board of directors at Rathgael was very impressed with their desire to produce elite level gymnasts, their enthusaism was infectious and it excited me talking to them," said Carson.

"At the moment Salto would be seen as the top club in Ireland but I believe we can go beyond them, we can make this the best club in Ireland - that's my aim and I'm not afraid to say it.

"In some ways the void that I have spoken about is being filled by this job. I've only started it but I'm loving it and I'm very excited about the potential here. I believe we have kids who can go to the Commonwealth Games, Europeans and even the Olympics.

"I have a starter class, a group of eight six-year-olds who I am very excited about because I am taking them from scratch. Already I have changed the programmes of some of the squads as we look to move everything up to another level. One guy I think can do big things is Rhys McCleneghan, he's doing some phenomenal work.

"He's 15 and I believe that he can target the 2018 Commonwealth Games but before that he has a chance at going to the European Youth Olympics next summer and then in 2016 there is the European juniors and he can medal at both of those championships, that's how good I think he is.

"We've just started up a crowd sourcing funding site because for Rhys to have the best opportunity he needs to go across to England to train and for that he needs funding because he will need backing for accommodation etc.

"I have picked up a lot of expertise from being around British gymnastics - Britain is in the top two or three countries in the world - learning from the best coaches in the world. I know what needs to be done."

While the young Rathgael hopefuls will naturally feed off his vast knowledge of the sport, Carson - whose sister Bethany is a Commonwealth Games swimmer - has a story to inspire them as they seek out their own dreams.

Just being on the plane to Glasgow less than 12 months after his horrific injury was a huge achievement.

"I was on so much medication it was dangerous. For most people a 50mg (sleeping) tablet would knock them out - I was on 150mg and when I got to the Games the medics there were worried and told me to go and get liver tests and other tests because it was so strong.

"And they were convinced that the heavy medication had actually effected my cognitive ability and that is why I made the two silly mistakes that I have never made in my life before. It was insane.

"I had gone to the qualification tournament in Tokyo for London 2012 knowing I had the stress fracture and I missed qualification by 0.1 - that's a foot placement, such a small margin.

"So then I had my first operation, a titanium plate with four screws and a bone graft... after that everything was going great, I was really at the top of my game. I had qualified for the world championships then a week before I went to vault and there was an almighty crack and my tibia shattered, the stress fracture had not healed and it gave way so I needed emergency surgery.

"They put a rod right up my tibia and the hospital in London said to me that I would not be doing gymnastics again but I was determined to get to Glasgow and went through horrific pain to get there."

Now it's about Rio and Rathgael... keeping all the dreams alive.

Belfast Telegraph

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