Despite injury setback in 2018 – damaging ligaments in his ankle after a fall from the high bar, meaning he was unable to compete in the 2018 Commonwealth Games – Fraser bounced back to make history at the World Championships just one year later: becoming the first ever British gymnast to triumph on the parallel bars.
The past year has thrown up setbacks of a different nature, with Olympics delays and lockdown-adapted training regimes, but Fraser is convinced the added training time has made him a stronger athlete, better prepared for taking a serious shot at the most coveted prize of all.
At just 22, he hopes his best years are still ahead of him, but away from the bright lights of competition it’s the long hours of training – six to seven every single day – that make all the difference.
Following the recent announcement that he’s been selected to team up with Max Whitlock et al at the postponed Tokyo Games, he took time out to talk MF through the physical and mental prep that makes him the gymnast he is.
Men’s Fitness: How did you first get into gymnastics?
Joe Fraser: My parents took me to my local gymnastics club when I was five or six, because I was doing somersaults off the sofa and bed at home, and they thought I was either going to hurt myself or break something in the house. One thing led to another, and ever since then I’ve loved it.
At the beginning I wasn’t necessarily the best kid in the group, but if you ask my coach now he’ll say the one thing that stood out was my want to do more and my want to do better. I had the drive to push myself to try things that others maybe wouldn’t.
MF: Can you remember when you thought you might be able to make a career out of it?
JF: I was on the way to the gym and my mum was dropping me off. I was only about 12 years old and my mum said, “Joe, I’ve got a surprise for you.”
I thought I was getting a PlayStation 3, but I got to the gym and my coach told me I had made the national team.
I didn’t even know there was a national team at that point, so it was a huge shock, but that was a turning point. It made me realise I was actually pretty good at this and made me more determined to give it my all to see what I could achieve.
Unfortunately I didn’t get the PlayStation, though!
MF: Who were your sporting heroes growing up?
JF: For me it was Louis Smith, who was winning multiple World Championship and Olympic medals. He was someone you would see on the telly, then go to a national centre and see him training.
It made me think, if I train equally hard, the potential is there for me to achieve similar things.
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MF: How have you found the adjustments of the last year, particularly with regards to the rescheduled Olympics?
JF: At first I was struggling, because I always had that one date in my head of when the Olympics would be. Then obviously it got postponed, then changed, and that was hard to deal with at first, but I took some time to refocus and see how I could use the extra time to my benefit.
I focused on making my routines harder, cleaner, and getting everything to the best possible standard, and looking at it now it’s actually turned into a positive.
I had 13 weeks of training at home and in the garden. I set up a pommel horse in my mum and dad’s bedroom! After June, luckily, I was able to get back to the gym.
MF: What are the key attributes it takes to succeed as a gymnast?
JF: Discipline: getting to the gym on time, even when you’re tired and it’s the last thing you want to do. You need to make every day count. There’s the quote ‘Don’t count the days, make the days count,’ and that’s very true.
You also need consistency: you can’t one week give 110 per cent and the next give it 50, because that’s not going to get you anywhere.
If you really want to do it, you can definitely turn your hand to it. Like I say, I wasn’t necessarily the most naturally gifted gymnast as a child, but I definitely wanted it and was willing to put in the hard work to be the best I could be.
If I had said to myself then, ‘I’m not the best now, so I’ll never be the best,’ I never would have achieved anything.
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MF: Most men would aspire to have the body of a gymnast, but few would be willing to put in the amount of training you have to go through – what does your weekly routine look like?
JF: I usually get to the gym around half nine. In my first session I’ll do conditioning and tend to touch on three apparatus: floor, pommel, and rings.
Then I’ll have an hour or so lunch, then two or three hours more training, probably on the other three apparatus: vault, parallel bars, and high bar.
At that point I go home to recover, and it’s back again for the next session. Wednesday is my half day, so I only have one session, but that pattern is repeated most days.
MF: Do you ever have days where motivation wanes? If so, how do you push through?
JF: I’m lucky enough to have some great training partners who are on the same mission as me. So whenever I’m struggling, one of them will pick me up and vice versa.
So even though one of us might not be feeling up to it one day, we’ve got such a tight team that we’ll drag each other up.
We’ve also got countdowns to the Olympics up in the gym, and seeing that each day we are getting closer makes you want it even more.
MF: How do you fuel all this training?
JF: Protein is key for me, because I’m training so much I need to give my body everything it needs to stay strong and prevent injury.
Being a GB ambassador for Whole Earth is great – I have the peanut butter on my porridge in the morning, so I can get that quick source of protein and energy just before I train.
MF: Talk us through your history-making moment in 2019.
JF: In sport you don’t get too many opportunities to show the world what you’re fully capable of. You work so hard to get to these pinnacle moments in you career that if you don’t enjoy them you’ll look back with regrets.
I just went out there with my coach – who’s been with me since the beginning – and tried to enjoy myself. I performed a routine that’s one of the hardest in the world, and to walk away as world champion I was over the moon.
MF: What’s the secret to staying both focused and calm going into a competition like that?
JF: I’m a very positive person, so I’ll be cracking jokes and having some fun. Like I say, you don’t get the opportunity to compete on the world stage very often, so I try to relish the moment and make the most of it.
MF: Your coach has said gymnastics is 90 per cent about overcoming failure – does that ring true?
JF: Definitely. That’s the one thing people don’t really see, and I try to make an effort to get that side of the sport out there. Young athletes only ever see GB gymnasts on the TV, and at that point they’re at peak fitness and the pinnacles of their career.
But what you don’t see are the times in the gym when they’re failing, or falling on their heads, or falling short of their goals. My coach and I try to show that we make mistakes just as much as anyone just starting out.
Find out more about Joe Fraser’s nutritional journey the whole way to the Tokyo Olympics at wholeearthfoods.com/teamgb
Interview: Isaac Williams