Huntingdon Gymnastics Club – Interview With Head Coach Paul Hall

In my home county of Cambridgeshire is one of the UK’s most successful gymnastics clubs. From its humble beginnings in 1976 when founder Terry Sharpington coached a few gymnasts in a local school, Huntingdon Gymnastics Club has expanded massively over the years to become the highly successful enterprise it is now, training hundreds of people of all ages and producing winners of four Olympic, five World, six Commonwealth and over twenty European medals.

Being a keen writer, I recently came up with a new angle for my blog, and the more I considered it, the more I liked it. Thanks to the ever-increasing success of British gymnastics, the sport is developing a healthy following both locally and nationally, and since the lead character in my debut novel Dory’s Avengers is a gymnast, I have a keen interest in it too. Approaching the staff at Huntingdon Gymnastics Club, I offered my services and suggested I post a blog for them, perhaps leading to a regular feature about the gymnasts, coaches, events.

To my delight, I received an enthusiastic response, which was what led to me travelling to Huntingdon on a sunny Tuesday afternoon to meet with head coach, Paul Hall.

Taking me on a brief tour, Paul pointed out the original buildings and the parts that have been added on since the club moved to its current location in 1982. As we walked around, I was struck by how cheerful everyone seemed, from the group of toddlers leaping about in the newest section to the steady stream of office staff and coaches flitting past as I bombarded Paul with questions. The whole vibe of the club is warm and friendly – it drew me in and made me want to get involved, and so I would if I were younger and more agile. However, being about as flexible as the average plank of wood, I think it’s probably safer if I stick to what I know and participate in the world of gymnastics by sharing my interview with Paul instead.


Huntingdon Gymnastics Club head coach, Paul Hall

Alison: Good afternoon, Paul. Thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions for me today. I’m interested to know what got you into gymnastics in the first place.

Paul: Like most kids of my day, I loved climbing trees and getting up to mischief, going on all sorts of adventures, and I liked jumping around. There was a local gymnastics club that my mum took me to as I’d worn out all the springs on her bed and sofas, so I started off as a gymnast there. I immediately fell in love with the sport, couldn’t get enough of it, was doing gymnastics in the lunchtime club, the after school club, and then in the evening club as well.

Alison: Was that here in Huntingdon?

Paul: No, that was in Castle Point in southeast Essex. We were in a little school hall, and that’s where I started – humble beginnings. I wasn’t a particularly good gymnast as I had very stiff shoulders, I wasn’t very flexible, but I loved being thrown around.

Alison: That must help! So tell me about your coaching career. When did you start coaching?

Paul: I was a gymnast up until I was about 18 years old, and then the coach who was working with me decided to retire and the club was going to close down. Rather grudgingly I decided to take on a basic coaching course just so that we could keep the club going and I could assist with running it. So I started a little reluctantly, but I gradually got more and more interested as I realised it was just as much fun teaching people to do things as it was doing them myself. I worked as a volunteer, part time as well as doing a regular job, until I was about 25 years old when I got a full time coaching job in Kings Lynn, Norfolk. That was my first proper gymnastics job, and I worked there for a couple of years before moving to Huntingdon. I’ve been at Huntingdon for the best part of 23 years.

Alison: What was it that encouraged you to get involved at Huntingdon?

Paul: Well, I knew the guy who was here before me, Terry Sharpington, a very charismatic man. I knew him on the regional circuit, I’d been to squads and he’d coached me as a boy, and I was inspired by him. He would often invite me to come and work for him, saying he’d give me a job one day. And so I left Kings Lynn and turned up on his doorstep all those years ago, saying, ‘I want to start working here [Huntingdon].’

Terry didn’t immediately have the money for me so I spent the first 3 or 4 months living in his house and working free of charge in the gym, just getting my board and lodgings. But I liked Terry, I liked the club. At the time it was one of the top clubs in the country – it still is – and had produced some high level girl gymnasts, but hadn’t really had too much of an impact on the boys’ side, so I was there to try and grow the boys’ circuit.

Alison: What do you look for in a young gymnast?

Paul: I like to think we take all shapes and sizes here. If you’re talking about elite, high-level gymnasts they have to conform to certain physical parameters such as being slightly shorter or slightly smaller than average, but overall they’ve got to be tenacious, hard-working, disciplined. They’ve got to be brave above anything else, so I look for people who like challenges, who like to try scary things, and who are quite flexible and naturally strong. But the club caters for people who aren’t like that as well, which is one of the great things about gymnastics. We provide a service for gymnasts with a disability, young children, older children, adults up to 60+ years old, and as I said, all shapes and sizes.

Alison: What would be your advice to anyone wanting to take up the sport?

Paul: I think it’s a super foundation sport. It’s one of the best sports that anybody, certainly any child, can start off with, and it can be a springboard into other sports. Gymnastics teaches the basic locomotor skills that people use for football, basketball, rugby and general life, so I’m a great advocate of the sport.

Alison: What is (are) your most memorable or proudest moment(s)?

Paul: Ah, what a question that is! Most people will think about the Olympics and the successes we’ve had there, and they were proud moments, but it’s quite funny that the moments which stay with me more than any are the ones people don’t realise. I remember a guy in his twenties from a special needs group that I was working with. I’d spent the best part of a year trying to get him to walk from one end of the balance beam to the other, and after a year he did it and jumped off, and the smile on his face…I’ll probably remember that for ever.


I think it might have been one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had in the gym. That sense of achievement was as good as Louis [Smith] winning an Olympic medal.

Alison: I can imagine! Now I’d like to hear about a typical day at the club. How many training sessions do you take? Are you involved directly with the gymnasts or more with coordinating the other coaches?

Paul: There’s no typical day at the club really. Every day’s different. Now I am more of a coordinator, I try to act as a head coach, giving advice to the staff, and we hold coaching clinics once a week to give them some ideas to make the sessions more interesting and fun. I’m often solving problems in terms of making sure that we cover sessions adequately, making sure that we head to competitions and all the necessary administration that’s involved with the sport, but yes, I still retain a lot of hands-on work. Normally I’ll arrive about lunchtime and there’ll be some of our elite gymnasts in the gym to have a session in a quieter environment between twelve and three o’clock. Then there’ll be an hour’s administration before the main part of the day when the kids finish school and come to the gym. Our gym is then busy right through until nine, nine-thirty in the evening while we work with a whole group of people – up to sixty gymnasts an hour for five hours.

Alison: Sounds pretty intense.

[Short silence while the inept interviewer loses her place in the questions.]

Alison (finally): How often are Huntingdon gymnasts involved in competitions?

Paul: Again it varies between the girls and the boys, but I’d say once they get onto the competition treadmill and start to compete at 10+ years old, they might have four or five competitions a year.


Medals! Medals! Medals!

We try to make it two seasons, although it doesn’t quite work like that, but normally there’s a busy period between September and November where they go to regional or national competitions, then there’s a break when they’ll prepare new elements over Christmas, January and February. The next period’s normally March and April with another round of competitions, and through the summer we’ll prepare again ready for the autumn season.

Alison: How do you help the gymnasts prepare?

Paul: Well it’s mainly learning new elements. It involves making them stronger, so we push them hard on conditioning and flexibility, and we test them once a month to make sure that they’re going in the right direction. There are certain compulsory exercises that each age group has to do, and our job is to keep up with that. As they get older, the elements get more difficult, more complex, and it’s hard to maintain that level of training. Some gymnasts might take a detour into another area of our club; they might go into freestyle or acro or display work, while others continue on the competitive pathway right up to national level and beyond. We do have some international adult gymnasts who you’ve probably heard about.

Alison: I certainly have, yes. Continuing the competition theme, do you host competitions here at Huntingdon, or is it purely training?

Paul: We do occasionally, but it’s not the best venue for spectators. There is a balcony upstairs, but it’s not ideal for competitions as we can’t get too many seats in. We’ve had county competitions and displays here, with parents craning their necks to see over the top of each other and watch their children. But while it’s not the perfect competition venue, it’s a very good training venue.

We normally go to Ipswich for the regional competitions, then all around the country and around the continent for the other competitions.

Alison: Do you travel with the gymnasts?

Paul: Mostly they’ll travel with their parents and we’ll drive there ourselves. Certainly when I was working internationally, I had many years of travelling every month to various countries for competitions, so I’m very well-travelled.

Alison: That must be pretty exciting.

Paul: It is, yes, very.

Alison: And finally, what are the club’s plans for the future?

Paul: We’ve had a frenetic two years of expansion since we built the new hall and there’s been a period of consolidation to get more staff in to cope with the vast numbers of members. We have 1,500+ members and a waiting list of some 500. We’re getting to a position now where we can stabilise the staffing and cope with the numbers, and then we have to think long term about expanding still further to cope with the demand and build up our elite programme. We want to continue to challenge at the very highest level of the sport on both the women’s and the men’s side, and hopefully produce more Olympic medals.


The bronze medal-winning men’s gymnastics team, London 2012 Olympic Games, including Huntingdon gymnast Louis Smith

Alison: An ambition I’m sure all Team GB fans will applaud! Well, that’s wound up my questions. Thank you very much for talking to me today, Paul.

I left Huntingdon Gymnastics Club with a spring in my step. Despite my interest in gymnastics having grown hugely since I first wrote Dory’s Avengers, I’d never had any contact with people who are actually involved in the sport before, and I’m not sure what I expected. What I found was a bunch of people, coaches and gymnasts alike, who are inclusive, enthusiastic, and best of all rejoice in each other’s achievements, recognising that however small those achievements may seem to others, they are huge to the person who’s worked so hard to succeed.

At Huntingdon, everyone who enjoys the sport is welcome.

To find out more about Huntingdon Gymnastics Club, please visit their website. You can also follow the club on Twitter and Facebook.

All photographs supplied by and used with kind permission of either Huntingdon Gymnastics Club or Paul Hall.



Great Big Trumpety Triumphant Fanfare, Please: Dory’s Avengers, Re-released TODAY

Yes, today’s the day I’ve been waiting for, the culmination of a year’s hard tweaking – my lovely sleek new version of Dory’s Avengers is available to buy on Amazon Kindle.

Please click on the appropriate link below to find out more.

UK link     USA link     Australia link     Canada link


A tale of loyalty and betrayal, kindness and cruelty, mystery and discovery, oppression and freedom, Dory’s Avengers is modern take on a good old-fashioned adventure with a great soundtrack, a healthy portion of sport and a huge dollop of humour, all leading to…

Stop right there! No spoilers.

To celebrate this momentous day, I have been out dog walking and chatting with my good friend and fellow author Georgia Rose, creator of the wonderful Grayson Trilogy among other works, and she’s been kind enough to share our chat on her blog. Would you like to have a read? Then head on over … here.

Thank you for joining me today to celebrate my book re-launch. I hope you enjoy reading Dory’s Avengers as much as I enjoyed writing it. And for those of you who have been asking, yes, I am writing novel number two (which goes under the super-exciting working title of New Book at the moment – it does exactly what it says on the tin, I suppose). Finally!

Happy weekend 🙂

Half Centennial

Today I have a significant birthday. Significant in what way? The clue’s in the title.

My mother, who is sadly no longer with us, was a keen writer (with a vivid imagination and a wacky sense of humour, all traits she passed on generously to her children), and she kept a diary so I have a written account of that momentous day in 1966. No, not the one England football fans are still banging on about (because, let’s face it, it’s never going to happen again)…


…which goes glaringly unacknowledged by my football loathing mum (goodness only knows where my love of football comes from), I mean a momentous day from a more personal point of view which took place a few weeks later.


It seems that was rather more significant from Mum’s point of view than England winning the World Cup. (Well, it would be, wouldn’t it, duh!) So fifty years ago this very day, I entered the world (just in time for lunch, of course), and in honour of the occasion I’ve been looking over the past decade and making a list of ten reasons – for me, anyway – why turning fifty is better than turning forty.

Another legacy from my mum is always to look for positives.

Ten years ago, I’d never:

  • Written, published or edited a book
  • Run my own business
  • Driven a car
  • Visited the Southern Hemisphere
  • Ridden a wakeboard
  • Driven a fork lift truck
  • Watched my little League Two football club run out at Old Trafford (couldn’t get the day off work last time Cambridge United played Manchester United in a midweek match – ooh, how I love being self-employed!)
  • Heard my sister sing in Kings College Chapel (which was an amazing experience, despite the fact I felt like a bit of a chav in my crop trousers and sparlky shoes ‘by Debenhams’ next to the toffs in their Savile Row suits and cashmere coats, and the fact that one of said toffs nicked my programme!)
  • Walked overnight from London to Brighton, which was arguably the most amazing experience of my life
  • Run a blog. Okay, those who are familiar with the sporadic nature of my bog posting might say I still don’t run a blog, but ten years ago I didn’t even know what a blog was!

As if those weren’t enough reasons for me to grab the champagne and party like it’s 1999 (which, of course, it’s not, otherwise I’d be a fresh-faced 33-year-old), I’m entering my sixth decade (yikes!) with exciting times ahead. My editing business is booming, I’m on the verge of re-releasing a vastly improved Dory’s Avengers (which is available for pre-order on Kindle – can’t resist a bit of marketing, even on my birthday)…

…and the status of novel number two has been elevated from ‘on the back-burner’ to ‘work in progress on the rare occasion I find time to write’.

Bring on the next ten years; I can’t wait to find out what they hold.


Big Fanfare Please – The New Improved Dory’s Avengers Is Available to Pre-order!

Excited! Buzzing! Finally, after the best part of a year’s editing, re-editing, re-re-editing, re-re-re-re…you get the picture, Dory’s Avengers is due for re-release on Friday 30 September 2016. The manuscript has been professionally proof read (yes, I know what I do for a day job, but not even an editor can proof her own work) – many thanks to Julia Gibbs for her expert work, and the cover art is looking fan-blooming-tastic courtesy of James Willis of Spiffing Covers:


I’ve managed to upload the manuscript not only to Kindle Direct Publishing, where the e-book is all ready to pre-order (Amazon UK, Amazon USA, Amazon Ca, Amazon Au), but also to Createspace for those of you who prefer a yummy printed book – thank you to Mary Matthews (aka author Georgia Rose) of Three Shires Publishing for teaching me so much at her excellent self-publishing workshop earlier in the year. Hell, I’m even going to be releasing Dory’s Avengers on Audible once I’ve found the perfect narrator – watch this blog for further news on that particular venture. There’s no stopping me now.


But hang on a moment – wasn’t Dory’s published three years ago? About this time of year, with a book launch and signing sessions and lots of champagne?

Book Launch Champagne 1

Okay, I confess – yes, it was. I’m not going to go into details about what went wrong (mutters dark oaths about vanity publisher dazzling naïve author with false promises); suffice to say, about a year ago I decided to reread my literary triumph and ended up hugely embarrassed by the standard of editing, proof reading and, I have to confess, my own blunders. All the parts I’d been uneasy about but had left in; all the rambling scenes I’d included simply so I could air one amusing phrase; all were there, mocking me and making me want to…give the book a damn good structural edit and re-release it.

And so I did.

I can honestly say I am delighted with everything to do with the revised edition of Dory’s Avengers, and I’m looking forward to sharing more blog posts and snippets from the book on An Author’s View in the weeks leading up to the big launch on 30 September. If you bought a copy of the original and feel tempted to give the sleek new version a try, please contact me and I will give you a free copy, if possible in the format of your choice. If not, I hope you will purchase a copy, love it and leave me a peachy review, but I will be equally interested to know your reasons if you’re not keen. If people are reading Dory’s Avengers, I will be one happy author. You, dear readers, are after all the reason why I write.

Monster #FlashFictionForay #FFF31

The Flash Fiction Foray is upon us again, and the song The Book Blogger has chosen this week is “Monster” by Imagine Dragons.

In case you don’t know the rules, the challenge is to write a short story of fewer than 100 words based on the song title or lyrics. A challenge indeed! This week I have managed to keep my word count to fewer than 170, which is better than the monster (ha-ha, see what I did there?) offerings of, ooh, nearly 500 words I’ve submitted in the past, but the magic 100 word story still eludes me.


Freddie was sitting on the stairs late at night, listening to Mother gossiping with the neighbours.

“The boy’s father,” exclaimed Mother, “is a real monster!”

“Monster. Monster,” agreed her companions.

Glowing with excitement, Freddie sneaked back to his bedroom to pack his meagre belongings. His dad was a real live monster – just wait till the bullies at school heard about that! Mother never did anything when Freddie came home in tears on a daily basis, other than telling him to grow a pair of balls. How was he supposed to grow balls? Why couldn’t she buy him some from the toy shop?

“Do you remember the awful things he used to do to Freddie?” Mother was saying, deaf to the front door clicking shut behind her small son. “I swear he’d have killed the child…”

Freddie didn’t hear these crucial details about the monster who’d fathered him. He was already on the streets, a bounce in his step as he set out to find his hero.

Picture courtesy of