While Olympic disciplines such as swimming, athletics and gymnastics dominate coverage, each year lesser known activities are making the cut. Stephanie Bell meets Northern Irish athletes pursuing future success in three of the more unusual yet thrilling sports
All eyes will be on Tokyo this weekend as 11,500 of the world’s best sportsmen and women take centre stage in the 2020 Olympic Games.
After last year’s postponement due to Covid, excitement levels this year have reached fever pitch as the world eagerly awaits the start of more than two weeks of top class competitions.
People of all ages from every nation including those who don’t normally follow sport can’t help but be carried along by the thrill of the games, with billions across the world expected to follow the action on their TVs.
Among the 33 different disciplines competing this year in 359 events, will be a number of new ones making their Olympic debut including BMX freestyle, surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing, karate and artistic gymnastics.
We caught up with Northern Irish athletes from three of these lesser known sports to find out what it means to go for Olympic glory.
We have all watched in awe as the artistic gymnasts twist and flip their way across the mat in a mesmerising display of strength and agility at the Olympics.
It’s a talent which Lisburn teenager Rebecca Geddis has dedicated the past 14 years to developing in the hope of making her mark on the world stage.
The ambitious 18-year-old is currently on course to qualify for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next year and after that has the world championships and the 2024 Summer Olympics in her sight.
Already an Irish senior champion, she has also competed in international competitions, bringing back a Gold medal with her team and a third place as a solo competitor, in the 2019 International Women’s Senior Competition in Belgium.
A year earlier she was awarded Northern Ireland Female Gymnast of the Year at the British gymnastics awards ceremony in Belfast.
Rebecca was just five when her mum first sent her to recreational gymnastics at Salto in her home town of Lisburn.
An Olympic Holding Camp, Salto is the largest gymnastic training academy in Northern Ireland and the coaches soon spotted Rebecca’s potential.
She says: “I was at Killowen Primary School when some Salto coaches came to look at the kids and I was chosen for the Beginners’ Squad and have since progressed to Squad A.
“I just fell in love with the sport and really enjoyed it. Even after 14 years I haven’t lost any of that enjoyment or the happiness it brings me. I really love doing it.”
Rebecca who is waiting on A-level results and hopes to go to university to study physiotherapy, has for many years dedicated 24 hours a week to training.
It has meant huge sacrifices but her dream is to stand on the podium at all the major championships, starting next year with the Commonwealth Games.
She specialises in artistic gymnastics which is slightly different from rhythmic gymnastics which is all about presentation and style.
Rhythmic gymnasts perform routines of leaps, contortions, and dance that flow in time to music while artistic gymnastics is more technical, rewarding precise movements and athletic strength.
Rebecca explains: “It combines leaps, jumps, spins, dance and choreography with difficult skills on four different pieces of apparatus — the vault, uneven bars, the balance beam and floor exercises.
“It takes a lot of time and dedication and I would be training 24 hours a week which is four hours, six days a week.
“I have had to miss out on a lot of things, birthday parties, family outings and even my studies. There is a lot to balance. I do try to find as much time as I can to spend with friends but it isn’t always easy as my sport comes first.
“I have just started to train for the Commonwealth Games next year and am preparing for the trials and competitions in the next few months.
“It takes a lot of work and repetition to perfect some of the moves but eventually they become muscle memory.”
Injury is a natural hazard of gymnastics and already Rebecca’s body has suffered wear and tear with a back and shoulder injury impacting on her ability to compete in 2019.
Confident that she is back in form now she is perfecting her most difficult move to date — one that she hopes will establish her as a power on the world stage.
She reveals: “I am working on a full in and back out on the floor which is a double summersault ending with a full twist.
“It is a high level of skill which you need if you want to compete at a high level. I have been working on it for a few years and will be excited to put it out on the competition floor. “
With tricks like that up her sleeve we can only look forward to yet more sporting glory coming our way in Northern Ireland as young talent like Rebecca take to the world stage.
No one could be more thrilled than Rob Hunter that the special skills required for sport climbing are to be showcased at the Olympics for the first time this year.
Rob coaches the Ireland squad and is convinced he has future Olympic stars among the passionate young climbers who are already proving themselves to be world class at international tournaments.
Just 10 years ago it was very much a fringe activity that little more than a few dozen people enjoying mainly as a hobby.
However, massive improvements in indoor climbing facilities in Northern Ireland saw hundreds more take up what has fast become a very competitive global sport.
Rob (44) has been rock climbing and bouldering since his dad introduced him to it as a young child.
In his days competing in the early ‘90s, Rob won the Irish bouldering championship title multiple times and also competed in the World Bouldering Masters where he finished in the top 20.
Today as a coach he is focused on bringing up the next generation of young sport climbing stars.
He continues to indulge his passion through training and devotes his spare time to climbing mostly with his wife Veronica Lee (40), a physiotherapist who is equally driven by the sport.
Together they run My Therapy Physio and Performance clinic in Lisburn.
While as a couple they love to tackle cliff faces at weekends — the Mournes and Ballycastle being among their favourites — they also have their own climbing wall at home in their garage.
This allowed them to continue to enjoy their passion during lockdown. Rob also uses the wall for coaching.
Rob says: “Climbing and bouldering has really has taken off in popularity here just in the past 10 years as more facilities opened and new climbing walls allowed people to give it a go.
“We have athletes on the squad from all over Ireland and we are delighted for the sport that it has been included in the Olympics for the very first time this year. I have been climbing for over 30 years and I never thought I would see it going to the Olympics.
“The International Federation of Sport Climbing has really been pushing to get in into the Olympics for the last five years.
“We have a great squad locally who are already competing in the Irish National Lead Climbing contests and across Europe and in the World Cup.
“There are now around 15 clubs countrywide, including in the south, and hundreds of people doing it in Northern Ireland.
“And while it is lesser known here, it is very popular as a sport in Europe.”
Rob explains that at competition level there are three categories to test skills.
The first is ‘speed climbing’, where competitors are judged on how quickly they can climb, the second is ‘lead climbing’ using a rope on a wall that increases in difficulty the higher you go up and the third is bouldering with no ropes, climbing to a height of five metres.
Rob explains the appeal and the skills needed to conquer some of the climbs which viewers will see up close and personal at this year’s Tokyo Games.
“For me the attraction — and I think it’s the same for most people — is about being outdoors and in nature,” he says.
“It also involves problem solving and of course, you need to like heights.
“The beauty of climbing is that anyone can have a go and I think that is what is really great about it. You don’t have to have a particular sporting talent. You do however need to have drive and passion.”
Although he now feels his competition days are behind him he is focused as a coach on putting other passionate climbers through the ropes to make it as far as the Olympics.
And he is confident that we do have Olympic hopefuls in our midst.
He adds: “We have a youth team aged from 13 to early 20s and there is great talent in that age group and they inspire each other.
“They are driven to compete and if Covid permits this year they will be aiming for the British Championships and the European Championships in October, providing there are no restrictions.
“We would be hopeful that we have world class climbers in our midst and who knows for the next Olympics?”
You need nerves of steel and unwavering dedication to make it in the thrilling sport of BMX Freestyle.
As it too makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo, every move and trick performed by the athletes will be watched closely by Belfast man Ryan Henderson.
Ryan is Northern Ireland’s only highly skilled BMX freestyle competitor and has ambitions to bring back a medal from the next Summer Olympics in Paris in 2024.
The 25-year-old coffee barista already has one sponsor on board but to make his Olympic dream a reality he desperately needs more support.
However in the meantime he is dedicating his spare time when not working to perfecting tricks that will make him stand out on the world stage.
BMX Freestyle is a spectacular discipline where the riders perform routines consisting of a sequence of tricks and are judged on the quality of their performance, the difficulty, style and how original they are.
Thanks to lockdown, Ryan got to put in more practice than usual and has recently perfected one of the most difficult manoeuvres on a bike — a double back flip.
He explains how he got involved in a sport which has become his passion, moving to Liverpool three years ago to up his game and join the competitive world of BMX Freestyle which hasn’t taken off in Northern Ireland yet.
He says: “I started quite late at 17. I was into motocross racing and went with my BMX to the Thunder Park in Bangor just to train and keep fit but found I enjoyed it even more than motorbikes.
“I took to it quite quickly and people were telling me I was picking it up very fast.
“I am part of a team called Thunder Action Sports in Bangor who bring people over from England for shows and events.
“Through some of these guys who came over I learned there was much more opportunity across the water to compete so I moved to Liverpool three years ago to improve my skills and it completely progressed everything for me.”
A risky sport by nature, his three years in Liverpool were somewhat overshadowed by injury but it didn’t stop him from getting experience at his first major tournaments.
In his first year he applied to take part in competitions in France and Germany up against some of the best riders in Europe.
He was shattered to break his wrist during practice just a week before but bravely carried on and competed despite his injury, finishing in a respectable 25th place.
In his second year he again competed in France and came off his bike during both competition runs, still finishing in the Top 15.
He says: “It showed me my fitness levels were not up to scratch and I’ve come a long way from then. In my third year in England Covid-19 hit and all competitions stopped.
“I decided to come home because of lockdown and was lucky that I was able to use Thunder Park track by myself as it was closed.
“I have progressed like mad because I didn’t have to worry about working full time. I am in competition against professionals who are all sponsored so they can devote all their time to training.
“Zenith Strength and Mobility gym in West Belfast has recently sponsored me and after just three months I can feel the difference working with them.”
Ryan’s focus is on perfecting his tricks and last September he became the only BMX rider in Northern Ireland to pull off a complicated double back flip.
He adds: “In competitions you are judged on your control and run of tricks and how big the track is and how smooth you are. Also they are looking for originality on how you put it all together.
“I would be quite well known for doing it with no hands. I can do a 360-degree turn with no hands and a back flip no hander which makes me stand out from the crowd.”
He now has his sights set on getting back to competitions and is firmly focused on his dream of qualifying for the summer Olympics in 2024.
He adds: “I have recently got my Cycling Ireland licence as I want to try and go as far as possible and I do have my eye on the Olympics.
“I have to have a certain amount of points to qualify and that’s what I will be focusing on over the next four years.
“Team GB is full so I will be looking at competing for Ireland.
“It means putting in the work while also holding down a full time job so I’m trying to find as much help as possible.”
If you can help support this young sports star’s Olympic dream you can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org