LUKE Folwell had the competition of his life at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, collecting two gold and three silver medals. But when a bent arm at the end of a routine can mean the difference between a gold medal and an early flight home, what is it that makes a Commonwealth champion?

LUKE Folwell had the competition of his life at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, collecting two gold and three silver medals. But when a bent arm at the end of a routine can mean the difference between a gold medal and an early flight home, what is it that makes a Commonwealth champion? asks MARK SHIELDS

WHEN Luke Folwell took to the top step of the podium in Delhi to receive Commonwealth gold, it was the culmination of 20 years of hard work and dedication.

Few people know that better than his parents Helen and Steve, watching at home in Temple Place, Huntingdon, who have seen the 23-year-old turn from tumbling tot to Commonwealth champion.

Luke was a regular in the gym hall as a toddler, as brothers Russell and Adam demonstrated the family talent. The youngest of the three soon showed he had it too, and was fast-tracked into the elite squad at Huntingdon Gym Club.

Recognising talent early is the first step on the road to success, as gymnasts lose vital flexibility unless it is maintained from an early age.

Mrs Folwell, herself a former gymnast, recognised the importance.

"You have to start conditioning from about seven or eight and make sure they are doing their stretches and conditioning, or else it is too late. Luke started running around the gym with his brothers when he was just a little pipsqueak, so he was training from a very early age."

At Huntingdon Gym Club Luke began to train alongside Louis Smith, who in 2008 became Britain's first Olympic gymnastics medallist for 80 years. The two continue to be strong friends.

After recognising the talent in their sons, Mr and Mrs Folwell became actively involved in their training. Mr Folwell spent two years taking his coaching badges, leading evening training classes for the youngsters after finishing his day's work in the City.

"I would get the train back from London, drive straight to pick the gymnasts up, take them to the club, train them and them drop them home again," he said.

Even family holidays could not be counted as time off. "We used to go to the seaside, and the boys would be up in the mornings conditioning on the beach," said Mr Folwell. "Then in the evenings I would drive them to King's Lynn for training. You can't take time off as a gymnast.

"You might stop stretching for a week, but it will take you two or three weeks to get back to where you were. It's not worth it. You need that dedication."

The arrival of coach Paul Hall at (now) Huntingdon Olympic Gym saw Luke and Louis make the step up to the next level, with Mr Folwell making a clean break from coaching.

"That's when things moved to the next level and we realised we had something a bit special," he said.

Luke went on to win British Championship all-around titles at U14, U16 and U18 age groups, taking time out from his studies at St Peter's School, Huntingdon, for training.

As his list of titles grew, so did the pressure, with a hard decision over his long-term future looming.

"From the age of 14 he was totally focused on his gymnastics," said Mrs Folwell. "But after A-levels, Luke had to decide whether he wanted to pursue gymnastics or go to university."

Luke enrolled at De Montfort University, travelling back to Huntingdon daily for training sessions as he prepared for the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. It quickly became clear he had to make a choice.

"It was either university or the gymnastics - but not both," said Mrs Folwell. "He worried he might be letting us down, but we said that whatever decision he took we would back him."

Mr Folwell added: "It was an opportunity he had to take - how many people get the chance to go to the Commonwealth Games?"

As a full-time gymnast, Luke trains 32 hours a week, and has taken just a single week's holiday in nine years. The competitive focus required to win means that when things don't go well - injuries, bad results or poor training sessions - support at home is crucial.

Mrs Folwell added: "As parents you have to be the cushion or the punchbag which soaks up the frustration when things are not going well. But when he is on top, no one is as proud as we are.

"As parents you see the very best and very worst. But you cannot interfere with things because you have to trust the coach - there's nothing worse than overbearing parents," said Mr Folwell. "You have to stay calm and be supportive of your children when they have setbacks."

Maintaining that cool detachment is easier said than done, with both Mr and Mrs Folwell confessing to being "nervous wrecks" when watching their son at the Commonwealth Games.

"Over the past week we've been sweating as much as if we had been in Delhi ourselves," said Mr Folwell. "We didn't want to go out just in case something happened - there's a bit of our superstition in there as well."

Having been involved in gymnastics for over 20 years, both are aware of how fine the line is between success and failure.

"So often it comes down to the four inches between the ears on the day," said Mr Folwell. "That's what makes the difference.

"You've got to have that dream, that goal and that single-mindedness. You can't let anything deflect you.

"You have to take the chances you have and make the most of them. They can come and go overnight: that's the life of a sportsman."