The Olympic Games have been a chance to celebrate sport over the last few weeks. Records have been broken, medals have been won, and countries around the world have revelled in their top athletes’ successes.
One week before the opening ceremony, however, one of the UK’s groundbreaking gymnasts put his Olympic dream behind him as he announced his retirement.
In many ways, Luke Strong is a trailblazer. His bronze medal in the individual trampoline at the 2014 European Championships was the first time a Brit had won such a medal in decades.
His, however, was a career regularly setback by injury, often just when it felt like he was making a breakthrough. Almost appropriately then, an ankle issue spelled the end for Strong’s time as a gymnast.
“Everyone was really nice and sent me really sweet messages,” Strong said.
“It has been different, definitely. It’s something I’m going to have to get used to, but I haven’t really trained since November 2019 anyway. I tried to get back from injury, but just couldn’t, so I guess I haven’t trained for a long time but it wasn’t official until very recently, so it’s been weird.
“It’s the first time in my adult life where I haven’t had everything planned out, which is weird, but I also have so much freedom now. Everything used to be taken up by gymnastics, so it has been kind of nice.
“It was difficult, because I didn’t really want to make the decision. From 2019 when I knew that the fracture had come back, I knew that I wanted to try again and I opted to take a step back from Tokyo just because mentally and physically I was done. I couldn’t give any more, I was crying every single day, so I made that decision to stop.
“I then made the decision to get the surgery done, and I was hoping that would sort everything else, and I tried every different option for it to work, but even now I still have pain every day when I’m walking.
“It was a case of the decision being made for me. I didn’t have a choice – I had been taken off the national team and I wasn’t funded any more – but it was a hard decision to make because I didn’t want to accept it myself.”
Knowing that his career is over, it may feel like an obvious time to reflect for Strong. Even his early days in trampoline, though, were not without his fair share of trials and tribulations.
Picking up the sport just before starting high school, Strong was bullied for training in what was perceived to be a feminine sport. He believes there was an element of jealousy, because he was chosen to be on the front of his sports college high school’s planner, got to travel around the world for competitions and even got half-days at school to be able to go and train.
That may not have been much comfort while being subjected to homophobic comments, but Strong credits his mother with giving him the confidence to shake those comments off as he got older – and the strength to return to training from his first major injuries as a teenager.
“She would always bring perspective – she taught me to have thick skin and not to care about what anyone said,” he explained.
“I loved doing it, it was my passion, and I wasn’t going to allow negative people to stop me from doing it. That was all I thought about all day every day, I couldn’t wait to get to training so I didn’t care.
“I had already broken my elbow in two places and dislocated it, and that year I had also had a stress fracture in my back that I was dealing with. I think I was already kind of tough anyway, and pretty determined. I knew what I wanted, and then the leg happened.
“To be honest, I’m kind of grateful that I was so young, because I just kind of got on with it. It was so bad, I almost don’t even remember what it was like.
“When I first broke it they said I had dislocated my knee, so I thought it was a simple injury and it would be a few weeks. It wasn’t until I got to the hospital and the doctors saw the swelling, which they thought was weird for a dislocated knee, so they scanned it and said my leg had basically exploded. My bones were in like 15 pieces.
“From then, I didn’t have a say in anything, because I went up for a basic surgery to measure the swelling, and I was going to be back down in half an hour. It was going to be simple, but when I was under, that’s when they realised that I already had compartment syndrome, so they rang my mum and said they had probably less than 10 minutes to save my leg, and asked for her permission to operate.
“They did all of that, and then I was on ketamine for the first week to manage the pain. People tell me stories and say the first week is the worst week, but because of the ketamine I don’t remember a single thing.
“There were a bunch of messages when I was in hospital on this trampoline forum, people saying my career was over, it was always going to happen, I was doing too much difficulty for a young age, blah blah blah. Reading all of that, I’m such a fiery person that I used that as motivation. I was going to prove these people wrong, there was no way I can stop now. I’m just really stubborn, so honestly I think that’s the reason why I didn’t stop.
“That’s where I’m grateful, because I get this really fiery side form my mum. She has always been like that since we were kids, she doesn’t care what other people think about her, she’s going to do what makes her happy.
“I think it also helped me going through the injuries. My mum has had illnesses that she has dealt with for my whole life, so I’ve always seen her struggle but just get on with it through the pain. I have always been used to that, so I guess I am a strong person because of that.”
Even after recovering from nearly losing his leg, a rocky couple of years followed. Strong made it back to competition, winning a bronze medal at the British Championships and two international tournaments in Portugal and Spain.
Exactly a year after undergoing surgery, he competed at the Junior World Championships, but missed out on the finals by one 10th of a mark. At that point, trampoline’s performance director told him he would never make it at the elite level of the sport, and recommended he found something else to do.
That kind of blow would have dented many young athletes’ confidence to the point of walking away, but Strong’s determination prevailed, and he competed in Japan and China – self-funded – before winning the Senior British Championships.
Throughout all of this in and around sport, Strong finally began to discover his sexuality too.
“I was never interested in girls or boys, or anyone really,” Strong reasoned.
“The first time that I started to think about it was the end of 2010, I was nearly 17, so I guess that’s when hormones started kicking in. So many people had said I was gay for years, why? Am I, am I not?
“I was really confused, so I struggled to figure out whether I was or not for months. I had never been on dates or anything like that, but it was actually my coach – who is also gay, I guess that made things easier because he could see the signs of what he had gone through himself – and he just asked me one time.
“Training had been affected a little bit while I was struggling, so he asked me and I just burst out crying. That was when I was like ‘oh, maybe I do like guys’. In 2010 I came out as gay, and I was happy, I had accepted it. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realised I might still be attracted to girls too.
“It was just so confusing, because I had never been in a relationship with anyone. I guess it was the tears, I think I knew deep down but maybe I was trying to suppress it because you don’t want bullies to be right. That was the worst thing, I had gone through all of that trauma for so many years and I could have just said it at the time.
“It’s difficult, because everyone in the community has felt bullying at some time, but everyone comes out at their own time. There’s no manual, it just happens. As soon as the tears came, I realised this was the answer, I must be. Once I had said it, it was a huge weight off my shoulders, and I could actually start living as a real person.
“I think because I had had so much bullying for so many years about being gay, I felt like I had to just be that. It wasn’t until I experimented more and had been with both sexes that I realised I was into both.
“I just never labelled it after that to be honest. Even in the BBC LGBT+ Sport podcast, I never said I’m bisexual, I was just like I’m attracted to both, and I make the choice depending on the person. If that makes me gay, bisexual, pansexual, I don’t care what you call it. I’m just comfortable with who I am, and that’s it.”
2014 proved to be a pivotal year for Strong in many ways. It was then he became the UK’s first European Championship medallist in trampoline in 32 years but, once again, injury would be his downfall.
He broke his left leg for a second time, taking him out of action for over a year. By the time he got back, the qualifying events for the Rio Olympics were on the agenda, but he was obviously in far from peak condition.
Really, it was an accomplishment just to make it back to competition after another injury as serious as that, but there was a moment Strong doubted he would compete again.
“I was off for 15 months, I got back just in time for qualification, but I had a lot of time off and I started to really struggle with a bit of nerve damage,” he recalled.
“Because I had the skin graft I had no feeling, but 2015 was of course the year that feeling started to return. I struggled a lot with injuries and being able to train, and with how much time I had been out of competition my confidence wasn’t great. I was thrown in at the deep end, I went from no competitions to one of the biggest competitions of my life. Good luck!
“It just didn’t go well, and unfortunately one of my teammates was better than me, so he qualified ahead of me and rightfully so. He deserved it, he did better, but it was difficult for me.
“That was the time that I did think I was done. Two weeks before I broke my leg the second time, I had just won my first individual medal at the European Championships. A man hadn’t won a European medal in 32 years, so I was coming from a high in that. I think that’s what kept me in the sport, because I had finally started to be one of the top athletes in the world.
“That was what I had trained for my whole life, so I couldn’t throw it in. I kept going, I did the rehab to try and make it to Rio, but I just fell short.”
Strong would be named as Team GB’s reserve for Rio, but that would turn out to be the closest he came to achieving his Olympic dream.
He set a new British record for difficulty in 2016, and the following year he would win a silver medal at the World Championships in the men’s synchro event alongside Nathan Bailey, but he still feels like there in an Olympic-sized cloud hanging over his career.
“I think I’m probably going to be affected by it for the rest of my life now, as sad as that sounds,” Strong admitted.
“It’s sad that it does that, but I feel like I fell short on the last hurdle, and now I feel like my career was a bit of a waste, and a bit of a failure. I hope that in time I feel differently, but I still get a sinking feeling in my chest. I feel like there’s something missing all the time, so it is difficult.
“It probably sounds dramatic to people who haven’t done sport, but it almost feels like a grieving process. It does feel like a loss. I think it’s going to be one of those things that I don’t ever really fully get over, but I learn to deal with it.
“I feel like I sacrificed everything in my life for that one goal. I started training at 11, and I trained Monday to Saturday every week, putting in 30+ hours, I didn’t hang out with friends – I didn’t even really have friends from school, because I just went training.
“I didn’t ever go out, I didn’t go to parties, I never went on family holidays, I sacrificed everything for it. Even the stupid things like when you finally do go out with friends, you get a salad at the restaurant, you get some lettuce leaves instead of fries, it’s the little things that you miss out on.
“I feel like I sacrificed a lot of amazing times with some of my best friends to chase this dream, so for it to not happen, was it worth it? I didn’t go to my dad’s wedding, I missed my nan’s funeral. There are so many things that I can never get back, and it’s almost like I can’t even say it was worth it because I fell short at the last hurdle each time.
“I like to believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t know what that reason is yet, but one day hopefully I will.”
Despite never competing at an Olympic Games, trampoline has made Strong the person he is today. He can hold his head high at having the perseverance to overcome the many obstacles he faced throughout his career.
It may take more time for him to be proud of the medals he has won, but he already takes pride in the person he has become.
Strong’s determination to succeed may lead some to believe he would make a good coach, but he is keen to take some time away from the sport after dedicating so much of his life so far to trampoline.
“I am proud, but I feel like now I don’t look back at results at all,” he added.
“I don’t even think about results at all, but I do look back at the person I’ve become because of trampoline. I’m proud of never giving up, and I’m proud that I was always a supportive teammate, and somebody that always tried to go out of their way to help others. I’m proud that my career could have been over many times, but I didn’t allow it to be.
“At the minute, it’s difficult to look back at my sporting achievements, because I know I was capable of so much more, but injuries hampered all of that.
“I got to travel the world as well because of trampoline. I’ve realised that is a huge passion for me, and I want to visit every country in the world. I guess that’s my goal in life now.
“People keep asking me if I’m going to start coaching, and I honestly don’t know. When everything ended for me, it was during a global pandemic, so I lost my career and couldn’t coach as a job because everything was shut, and I couldn’t travel.
“I had a moment where I was like ‘I don’t know what I like, what am I going to do?’ It was an identity crisis. People keep asking me what’s next, and I don’t know. At the minute, I’m travelling. I want to visit all of Central America, and then I will probably go home and maybe try and buy a house – be a little bit of an adult – before hopefully going off and travelling again.
“I do have some coaching qualifications, so that is a backup for me if I don’t find anything else I guess. It was a pretty toxic environment at the end, so I’m kind of trying to distance myself from gymnastics as a whole. I need some time away.
“At the minute I don’t know, I’m still just hoping that I wake up one day and my ankle feels okay.”