British Disability Gymnastics champion wants more opportunities for disabled athletes

A current British champion for disability gymnastics is frustrated by the lack of opportunities for disabled athletes.

Oliver Kettleborough is autistic, and attends South Yorkshire specialist school for children with developmental disabilities, Alderwasley Hall. He is competing in the British disability gymnastics championships this week.

At age 16, Oliver is already at the top of his sport. In April, he beat people twice his age to win three gold medals and a silver at the Artistic Gymnastics British Championships.

Since gymnastics is not a Paralympic sport, and Oliver’s IQ is too high for him to qualify for the Special Olympics, Oliver has no platform to gain further titles at an international level.

Speaking about autistic athletes, Oliver said: “I feel as though there should be more opportunity for everyone. People know we’re here, but we can still make a bigger impact, we can still scream a bit louder.”

He added: “To do what you love is an amazing feeling, and to be able to compete and get the word out for disability athletes at the same time is even better.”

Oliver’s mum Lorna Kettleborough, who is also a gymnastics coach, drives two hours from Oliver’s Derbyshire school to Nottingham where he trains six days a week.

Lorna said: “It’s a nightmare, because he’s at the top of his sport, as high up as he can go.

“His IQ is too high to compete in the Special Olympics, but he wouldn’t be at a special school if his learning differences and his disability didn’t impact his life in as much as a way of those others.”

Although British Gymnastics have prioritised money into grassroots getting disability athletes into sports, top competing athletes have been left underfunded.

Oliver is funded £1,000 a year by British Gymnastics, but Lorna said she spends around £9,000 a year on Oliver’s training and competitions.

She said: “We’ve got to try to convince British gymnastics that its worth looking for these opportunities, and if that takes Ollie to promote the sport, and me to keep talking about it that’s what we’ll do.”

Picture from Oliver’s instagram: @autistic.gymnast

Lorna added that disability athletes as a group have less opportunity to train as hard as mainstream athletes of the same sport.

“If Oliver had the same opportunities (as mainstream athletes) you wonder how good he might be now,” she said.

Oliver added that disability events are also rushed as the pre-cursor to the mainstream event.

He said: “The first year I competed at Liverpool we competed against all the other masters. They have to fit six rotations within four actual rotations. As soon as we’ve finished a piece we have to jump off and run to the next piece.”

Oliver wants people to recognise him as an autistic athlete so that he can be a voice for a group which is often overlooked.  

Autism affects Oliver’s judgement of movement and pressure so he has to practice movements more times than a neurotypical athlete.

It also makes it hard for him to deal with bright lights and noises. However, British Gymnastics allow disabled competitors to bring items like headphones with them before they perform. Oliver said he uses a Rubik’s cube to focus his mind before he takes to the stage.

He also hopes the Paralympics recognise gymnastics as a sport before he is too old to compete.

Oliver has gold medals in ring, floor and vault events, so in this week’s competition he is hoping to gain medals in new events.

Lorna added that she is “immensely proud” of how far he has come.

She said: “He was the boy in the classroom who would climb up on top of the furniture. To go from that to competing in big arenas is just awesome.”