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Luke James is aiming for gymnastics’ biggest stages

Luke James has gone and is going places in gymnastics. He’s one of three Westville Boys’ High learners who were recently awarded their Merit ties, for receiving South African colours in sport. He’s won in national and international competition and he hopes to make it to the Olympic Games, maybe this year in Tokyo or in 2024 in Paris.

Qualifying for this year’s Games has had a spanner thrown in the works with the complications caused by the coronavirus. The African Championships, which also serve as Olympic qualifiers, were supposed to have been held in Eldoraigne from 1 to 5 April.

It’s a temporary setback for Luke, who recently broke into the senior ranks with the national team as the only team member from KwaZulu-Natal.

“Trials are still going to happen, but they’re postponed,” he said in a recent chat with KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan at Westville Boys’ High. “In a worst case scenario, no spectators will be allowed and they’ll have separate days for the different apparatus to keep it under 100 people in attendance. An Olympic trial has to happen regardless of whether or not the African Championships happen.

“I was looking forward to competing in Joburg because of the home crowd. We would have had big support in a nice, big stadium. I hope it still happens.”

The Tokyo Olympics are a dream, he revealed, but they’re only a potential part of a longer-term plan: “Since this is my first year in the senior national team, my chances to go to the Olympics aren’t too high, although there is a chance. But I have definitely got my eye set on the 2024 Olympics. Also, on the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, and then the World Championships and World Cups.”

Full school uniform, standing back flip, no problem! (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)

Luke’s gymnastics’ journey began a decade ago when, at the age of seven, he joined the Pinetown Gymnastics Club. He was a very active child and his parents saw the club as an ideal outlet for him to expend some of his seemingly boundless energy.

“I was a bouncy kid, playing a lot, and the Gymnastics Club was pretty close to home. We had some friends who were going, so I joined in and I loved it. I had a trampoline as a kid, so I was always jumping on it,” Luke recalled.

He participated in competitions from the start, but his first international competition, the Junior Commonwealth Games in Namibia in 2016, truly underlined his potential. He was in grade eight at the time and claimed a bronze medal on the floor.

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“That’s when I realised I should pursue the sport. It was exciting, something I wasn’t expecting,” Luke said. “It was crazy. It felt like I was on top of the world.

“It was great because we were also second in the team event. The reaction was really good, people were so happy. That’s when my name started coming up more in the gymnastics’ community.”

In 2018, Luke won a bronze medal on the floor at the African Championships and helped South Africa to second place in the team competition.

Luke James on the podium after finishing in third place on the floor in the African Junior Championships, held in Swakopmund, Namibia, in 2018. (Photo: South African Gymnastics Federation, http://www.sagf.co.za/)

In September 2019, he captured the South African Junior floor and vault gold medals in the National Championships. He was then selected to represent the country at the Olympic Hopes event in Prague, the Czech Republic. There, Luke performed superbly, making the final of both events and coming away with a gold medal in the vault.

“That was a big deal for me,” he admitted.

Gymnastics has presented Luke with the opportunity to travel, something that he loves doing. Japan, home to the reigning Olympic men’s team champions, and to his particular hero, Kōhei Uchimura, the winner of three gold and four silvers across two Olympics, has a deal with South Africa that takes the country’s athletes to the Land of the Rising Sun.

“We go out there every year and they pay for us to go and train with them,” Luke revealed. “I have done that three times now, usually for about 10 days. I went at the beginning of this year, and also in 2016 and 2017.

“I met the whole squad. We learnt a bit of Japanese and they know some English too. That’s also motivation, getting to travel the world for free, getting to see different places and meet new people.”

Being able to see how the top gymnasts in the world train has been an eye-opening experience, he added: “They are so advanced in what they do, and they have such a big support team around them. They have scientists working to figure out different things. It’s a crazy new world. We can learn from them and bring that knowledge back here, which is the whole point.”

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The demands of competing at an elite level of gymnastics are high and they’re especially challenging for a 17-year-old in matric, Luke said, as he detailed what a typical week looks like for him: “I finish school at 14:20 and go straight to the gym. I start at 15:00 and finish at 19:00. Four hours a day, Monday to Friday, and then on a Saturday it’s 09:00 to 13:00. Those are serious numbers. There’s a lot of sacrifice.

“I do homework when I can, whenever I can find a gap. The teachers are understanding. Usually when I get home, I will eat, do a bit of homework and go to sleep.

“During exams, I tone down the numbers in the gym. The teachers are quite demanding about what they expect in the class room.

“Sunday is my off day, so that is usually time for school work.” Weekends are also the time he gets to spend with his father on his other hobby, dirt bike riding.

Luke won gold on the vault at the Olympic Hopes event in Prague at the end of 2019. (Photo: South African Gymnastics Federation, https://www.sagf.co.za/)

Another challenge, and it is especially important for gymnasts, is diet. Thankfully for Luke, who confessed he has a sweet took, he has professional help at hand.

“Luckily I am on the EADP programme at Prime, which is a High Performance Institute in Durban,” he explained. “I have a dietician on my side who makes meal plans. They keep my body running all the time. I am very lucky to have them, to be honest.”

Being a smaller person is certainly something that helps in gymnastics, but that, too, can change.
“I am growing quite a lot,” Luke admitted, “so it is a challenge. As you grow taller, your geometry changes, but I am adapting to it.”

His plans for his gymnastics and his post-Westville Boys’ High days entail a move to the northern hemisphere to train in the UK with their Olympic coach, Paul Hall.

“I will compete for South Africa, but train in the UK,” Luke explained. “I am going to study through correspondence, doing film.”

Visual effects and editing have always been one of his interests, he said. Interestingly, he reckons they also helped him to persuade Hall to train him. “I sent an email to him to try and get a spot on his team. I made these videos of my training and it was kind of like the smoke and mirror effect to make everything look good.”

The thing with gymnastics’ competition, though, is there are no short cuts. There are no smoke and mirrors that will pass the scrutiny of the judges. It’s all about hard work, talent, and commitment and Luke James has demonstrated that he has those. Now he wants to explore just how far they can take him.

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