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The Welsh super club that keeps on winning

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Article in association with Dai Sport.

Running a thriving sports club is no easy task, but anyone curious to see what success really looks like should visit Valleys Gymnastics Academy.

Tucked away on an industrial park between Crumlin and Oakdale in the Gwent Valleys, the club looks like so many others – a rented commercial unit adapted into a sports facility, with a busy stream of parents ferrying children into the car park, bordered on all sides by articulated vehicles servicing the nearby depots.

But this is arguably the biggest participation single sports club in Wales, with almost 3,000 paying members, 95 employees and seven locations across five local authorities.

It’s an achievement that is making those in UK gymnastics take notice and although the year is young, Valleys Gymnastics Academy (VGA) is already celebrating two awards and further nominations.

 

The club scooped two prestigious awards at the British Gymnastics National Awards night – coming first in the national club category (for those with a membership of over 250) and also winning the national award for equality and inclusion, given for working consistently in the community, providing additional opportunities for under-represented groups.

The club had been up for the “club of the year” title four times previously and managing director, head coach, and club co-founder Melissa Anderson admitted: “We just feel proud and overjoyed.

“We have won Welsh Gymnastics’ club of the year award twice in the past, but I don’t think any other Welsh club has ever been short-listed for the Great Britain award.

“To win that and the award for equality and inclusion means we’re the only club who have ever won two awards at the same event.

“I know how hard everyone works and how much they care about providing opportunities in the community. It’s lovely as a team of people to have that recognised and rewarded. A lot of other clubs had told us they were hoping we’d finally win. So, it was fantastic.”

With two awards in the bag, the club were also recently nominated for the community organisation award at the National Diversity Awards, held in conjunction with ITV News.

So, what does success for a club that is also a social enterprise, look like? What can other gymnastics clubs – and other sports – learn from VGA?

Boundless enthusiasm, hard work, determination, common sense and a few very transparent guiding principles that serve to inspire staff, volunteers and athletes would seem to be the order of the day.

VGA are self-funded. They are not maintained by regular cash injections from governing bodies, local authorities or even sponsors. And they have been that way since they were created 15 years ago out of a merger between a club in Abertillery and another in Ebbw Vale.

They plough their own furrow and they make their own calls. They have occasionally tapped into project grants for equipment and facilities – but for the most part the club’s operation is based on the same model as most parks’ football and rugby teams – members’ subs.

The secret appears to be in creating an experience so enjoyable - for those with elite gymnastics dreams as well as those looking for friendship and fun – that members (or more commonly their parents) are prepared to stump up.

Walk into the carefully configured gym at their main base at Unit 3H on the Croespenmaen Industrial Estate, and it’s possible to get an insight into why it works as well as how.

The gymnasts are busy. The coaches are plentiful. The groups are small.

In every corner, some supervised activity is being undertaken and there is a calm, brisk, business-like atmosphere, but also one that feels like fun for those involved.

This is being replicated in seven other regular locations, other units or rented sports centres in venues like Cwmbran, as well as school premises. The numbers are as impressive as the range – with 2,900 members paying fees of between£4.50 for a one-hour session, to over £100 for 20 hours a week of intense coaching.

 

“We’re the largest gymnastics club in Wales by a very long way,” says Melissa. 

“Some members do once a week – some do three, four or five times a week, depending on their commitment level and ability.

“In addition, we do drop-in sessions - pre-school, freestyle and disability sessions. Every week there are in excess of 3,000 children doing gymnastics with us.”

Neither is it just collective and community awards that are being scooped by VGA, either. Individual gymnasts are thriving there, also.

Thirteen-year-old Amy Oliver made the Great Britain training squad, as have 10-year-olds Halle Cegielski and Ben Scourse.

Club member Bethany Paull, 18, also won three golds and two silvers at last year’s Special Olympics in the United Arab Emirates.

For Melissa, the inclusivity recognition is a fundamental part of what the club is – and should always be – about.

“I didn’t want us to exist as an organisation, just for a few talented kids. There is so much that everyone can gain from gymnastics – whether it’s a two-year-old developing physical literacy skills, or a teenager staying active, or someone gaining leadership skills.

“That is what drives us. We’ve never moved away from traditional gymnastics, but it’s important we are here for everyone in the community. We focus on what people can gain from participation and not just performance.

“As a social enterprise that’s massively important. We are heavily involved with street games, we collect for local food banks, we lead on the Caerphilly family engagement, and we work with other partner organisations.

“One of projects now running is about delivering a family walking group. In Caerphilly, they wanted boxing.

“We are not too precious about it always being gymnastics.”

Gymnastics paired with boxing – not even Joe Calzaghe, whose famous gym was just down the road in nearby Newbridge, could manage that.

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