How an egg-packing factory – and parents' sacrifices – hatched Olympic dreams

Daniel Purvis competing
Sporting star: Daniel trains almost every day at at his local gymnastics club Credit: Getty

We all know that it takes talent and graft to become an Olympic gymnast, but behind almost every successful athlete are parents and a coach whose sacrifices also merit recognition

Daniel Purvis was a hyperactive child whose career was honed in a converted egg-packing factory in Southport. The eggs are long gone but the factory still stands today, as Southport YMCA Gymnastics Club.

Jeff Brooks coached London 2012 medallist Purvis to world level at Southport YMCA, and says it is the “greatest achievement” of his life.

Describing the YMCA, Brooks says: “The old factory is 100-metres long and it's not purpose-built at all. We have quite good equipment, which is worn now, but it was just a dream of like-minded people who started the club in 1973. [Soviet gymnast] Olga Korbut was the inspiration. It's been an outstanding success and we've outgrown the building really.

“In the early days there were only a couple of hundred people in different school venues. When we moved to where we are now there were about 450 members. Now we've got 1,300.”

One of those 1,300 is Purvis, who joined aged seven when his parents, Bob and Denise Purvis, were desperate to find a sport for him to sap his enormous reserves of childhood energy. “It started with my older brother Richard who played football,” he says. “My mum and dad thought they'd try to do the same thing with me. But I was terrible at football. I'd just run around and didn't really have a clue.

“One of the teachers recommended going to a gym and from there I just took to it. My coach, Jeff Brooks, spotted something in me and it got started from there. It wasn't that easy – I struggled with the technical basics of going forward and backwards and all the twists. It wasn't until I was about 11 that I got the grasp of things and started pushing towards the GB squad and thought ‘I want to make a real living from this’.”

“A lot of kids thought it was a girl's sport when I was younger. They didn't understand it. They thought: ‘Why do you wear a leotard when you're a boy?’ But as soon as you did a handstand or a backflip everybody thought it was the coolest thing ever.

“My high-school friends played football and as soon as you score a goal and celebrate with a somersault everyone loves that. People have a lot of respect for gymnastics. I was a shy boy and it really helped me develop socially.”

Purvis’ parents Bob and Denise sacrificed so much for him, and his father even took early retirement to help his son achieve his dream.

“My parents were massively important for me,” Purvis explains. “They'd take me to the gym six days a week. Also when I had competitions and had to be in London they’d have to drive me all the way there and back. Up until I was 18 and learnt to drive, they were taking me everywhere. It was a massive burden on them. But at the same time they were so supportive and without them I wouldn't have been able to achieve what I have achieved.”

Bob looks back at the time when he and his wife were keen to get their son into sport. “We were really pulling our hair out trying to find an outlet for this immense energy he had as a youngster,” he says. “He was never still. If he saw something that was a challenge to him, he'd jump on it. You couldn't take your eyes off him for a moment. That was the reason we felt we needed to focus this energy into something positive.

“From a very early age – probably around two – we would take him to the park to do his monkey climbs on the bars just because he enjoyed that kind of activity and it helped him let off some steam.”

Bob, now 64, played junior football for Grimsby Town, while Denise, 55, played netball for Dundee. Both went on to become PE teachers.

“I'm pretty sure our PE backgrounds would have probably helped point our minds towards what we felt would be good for our children,” Bob says. “We didn't necessarily want them to be overachievers but we did want to give them every opportunity to get into sport and get out of it what we had in our lives.

“The gym club we were lucky enough to find was about 12 miles away. Once we got him there we could see it was where he belonged. He was so comfortable. The coaches talked to us about his ability and his strength. We said: ‘Right, that's enough for us’. If this is where he needs to be, this is where we'll make sure he is as regularly as he needs to.

“By the time he was eight, we had to make sure he had enough fuel in his stomach once home from school and before driving to the gym. It would then be a three-hour training session"

Bob believes that without sacrifice from parents it is difficult for athletes to reach Olympic and elite level. “I'm pretty sure that that level of parental commitment is absolutely crucial,” he says.

“There will be athletes who have had success and not had the parental background of others. I don't quite know how that would work. But it has certainly been a massive part of Daniel's progression in this sport that as a family we have been able to support him and give him all the extra time that he needed. [Gymnastics] is a sport, of course, where you can't just go in the back garden or go over the park and run around. It has to be so specific, with specific apparatus.”

Bob’s giving up work was part of that. “In chatting with his mum, we felt it would allow us to give Daniel the support he needed. There were no guarantees, obviously, but we decided that potentially we couldn't allow him to wither when he could go so far and we could help get to the top of his sport. It was a family decision that I took the early retirement and then did some part-time work around it.”

Daniel's regime has affected life at home. “When we're looking round the supermarkets at what to have for a family meal, it's based around what we know Daniel should be having. It will be lean meat, more vegetables than we perhaps would normally be having, not so many chips, but more on the baked potatoes side. We've all benefited health-wise because of that.”

Denise agrees. “I don't know if I'd use the word sacrifice. I think it's what any parent would do. Daniel was happiest when he was at the gym. We just wanted to give him the opportunity. I think we did what most parents would do. We were just able to support him – one would take him, one would pick him up.

“Obviously we're immensely proud of all his achievements over the years. It's just amazing to think where he's got to. For us, it's just normal life.”

But great credit, agree both Bob and Denise, must go to coach Brooks, whose commitment has never wavered. “He's spent longer with Daniel, one a one-to-one basis, than we probably have,” explains Denise.

Bob concurs. “We have to say that if there's one linchpin to all this it would be Jeff Brooks. It was Jeff who recognised Daniels' potential in the first place, it's Jeff who has focused massive amounts of energy and time into Daniel.”

Dan’s coach and mentor, Brooks, explains how he has witnessed the blooming of not just an athlete but a man. “When Dan was a young boy he was very introverted and didn’t have a lot of confidence. Even when I realised how good he could be, it was a long time before he accepted what I was saying could be true. That's the biggest achievement on my part, I think. Obviously it has taken over my life, as it does all personal coaches, because I've coached him since he was seven. He wasn't very academic at school and this has been his saving grace, to be honest.

“I did a lot of sport when I was young myself, up to junior international level, and I just think when you finish your sport, for whatever reasons – mine were injuries – it's nice to give something back,” Brooks says. “It's a huge commitment as a personal coach in gymnastics because the gymnasts start at such a young age and the better they become, the more you have to give. You’ve got to be prepared to sacrifice quite a lot of your own family life. You don't do holidays.”

“Coaching Daniel to elite level is the best thing I've ever done in my life, to be honest. It makes me feel worthwhile.”