British gymnasts soar to world-class ranks

GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) Once no-names in the world of gymnastics, Britain unexpectedly stole the spotlight at the 2012 London Olympics by delivering a surprise bronze medal before the home crowd.

Three years later, the Brits are proving they're no one-Olympic wonders.

The men's team is on track to advance to the world championship finals after finishing third in qualifying behind Japan and China on Sunday. If they remain inside the top eight when qualifying ends on Monday, they'll earn an automatic spot in the 2016 Olympics. The British women have already booked their trip to Rio de Janeiro next summer after earning a spot in the team final.

''I think London for us has done wonders,'' said Max Whitlock, who advanced to the men's all-around final. ''I think going from that has made each other see what is possible.''

Before the 2012 London Games, British gymnasts were out of sight and out of mind for the British public and the rest of the world. When Britain won the rights to host in 2012, the country poured money into the program. It paid off in historic fashion.

The men's team pulled a stunning triumph, capturing the country's first team medal in a century. It brought Prince William and Harry to their feet, made the gymnasts household names and raised the sport's public profile in a country obsessed with soccer and rugby.

''The 2012 Olympics game was incredible,'' said Louis Smith, who took the silver medal on the pommel horse in London. ''I still get parents coming up to me now and saying, `We watched you in London, my kids have been fascinated since then with gymnastics.' The knock-on effect from that has been absolutely amazing.''

One that continues to pay dividends.

''Now we are in the position where everyone gets funded,'' he said. ''Everyone gets facilities and coaches that it also funnels down to the younger ones. The younger ones get their coaches, their facilities, more after-school clubs, more interest.''

Nile Wilson was an aspiring 16-year-old gymnast back in 2012. Watching the guys in red, white and blue on the medal stand sent a message that still resonates.

''It's massive, massive, massive inspiration,'' said Wilson, now 19 and on the national team. ''And as I said I watched that competition in the Olympics, and all I was thinking in my head was, `I can do that. I want to be on that team.'''

And here he is, three years later, wearing the Union Jack uniform on the floor of The SSE Hydro, competing for Britain.

Wilson posted the highest score among the Brits on rings, parallel bars and high bar. He finished tied with Whitlock in all-around qualifications, but will miss out on the finals due to a tiebreaker.

''That's just the way the sport goes sometimes,'' Wilson said.

As if to prove the 2012 victory was not a one-off, the British men's team finished the fourth in the 2014 worlds in Nanning, China.

The women's program needed more time to flourish. Now, they're nearly equal to the men. Rebecca Downie, Elissa Downie, Ruby Harrold, Amy Tinkler, Amy Flagapane, and Kelly Simm moved into Tuesday's women's team final after finishing the third after the qualifying round, trailing only powerhouses United States and Russia.

''Couldn't be more proud of my team!'' tweeted Ellie Downie.

The British women placed the fifth and sixth in 2011 and 2013 worlds.

Both Tinkler and Harrold will compete in the all-around, while Ellie Downie was edged out because of a two-person limit even though she placed the 20th overall. She took solace in the knowledge the team is already good to go to Rio next August. Heady territory for a group now rubbing shoulders with its men's program.

''The men's program is immensely strong,'' Elissa Downie said. ''I think it's great that they all so strong now because it used to be the women so we kind of bounce off each other.''

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