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Olympics 2012: Spanish gymnast hopes to raise the bar

Gervasio Deferr, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, is helping the underprivileged realise their life potential through gymnastics.

Having learnt from his own mistakes, Gervasio Deferr aims to rid his pupils of drug-related issues. Albert Gea / Reuters
Having learnt from his own mistakes, Gervasio Deferr aims to rid his pupils of drug-related issues. Albert Gea / Reuters

Gervasio Deferr, Spain's most decorated gymnast, was Olympic champion in the vault at the Sydney and Athens Games, and won silver in the floor exercise in Beijing. But after a decade at the top he retired last year to go into coaching.

Deferr, 31, works now for free in a deprived corner of Barcelona, helping underprivileged children improve their lives and follow their dreams through gymnastics.

He combines his job at the Sant Cugat del Valles Centre for High Performance in Barcelona with his unpaid work in a small club in La Mina, a neglected neighbourhood of San Adrian del Besos on the northern outskirts of the Catalan capital.

The former gymnast trains around 100 boys and girls from ages seven to 14, teaching them the love and sacrifice needed in a discipline that could help change their lives.

"Gymnastics has given me the life I have," said Deferr, who started in the sport at age five. "I want to be able to change people's lives through gymnastics. Being able to dedicate myself to it is a luxury."

The son of Argentine immigrants, Deferr founded the La Mina club which carries his name with other sportsmen in November 2010. They had a social objective, which was to bring gymnastics to those less fortunate, though not exclusively.

"It would be very arrogant for us to say that some people could not dedicate themselves to gymnastics, but I hope we can realise our principal objective," he said.

The neighbourhood around the club expanded rapidly and in a disorderly manner in the economic boom of the 1960s, drawing a high proportion of immigrants and ethnic minorities.

In the past decade, local authorities have worked to improve the area, which suffers from high rates of illiteracy and drug abuse.

Another of the club's aims is to encourage social integration, and as part of their education children have to carry out activities with people from nearby districts.

Deferr's gymnasium charges €40 (Dh184) a month for a 90-minute training session twice a week, and up to €75 for three-hour sessions, six days a week, which is around half the typical rate.

It has been a difficult balancing act to be able to keep the doors open and pay the trainers, who are the only people who get paid in the project, despite support from the local council and the Sports Council of Catalunya.

"We started in a terrible position, losing €2,000 a year, but what do we want? This is a social project in La Mina," Deferr said as he sat in a cultural centre near the gymnasium, where he is known by everyone as "Gervi".

Deferr demands full commitment from the parents and his pupils and has provided money from his own pocket to help out, when he has seen dedication from struggling families, so the children can complete their courses.

Deferr, who says he has matured since losing two international medals after testing positive for cannabis in 2002, looks to the project's private donors to step in and assist others, and to help balance the gym's books.

While he explained his project, a drug addict approached and asked for a cigarette.

"This is the father of one of the girls who came to the gym, and any [drugs] he has left over, she smokes. I am trying to make sure the kids don't grow up to be like this at 18," he said.

The children ran up to hug Deferr in the gym and were keen to show him how they had advanced during the week, while parents watched from the viewing gallery waiting to speak to him for progress reports, and about subscriptions for the coming year.

"This kid is going to be an Olympian," Deferr said pointing to a blond haired, 10-year-old boy. The muscle definition could already be seen despite his young age, and he had been training for only two years.

The boy trained apart with three others because they were competing in a Catalan regional competition at the weekend.

It is the first year the La Mina club members have entered the official gymnastic circuit, and already some have flourished and will enter the national level next year. The gym is not just about creating future stars, Deferr was keen to point out.

"We have a girl who suffers from a high level of autism," he said. "When she arrived she didn't speak to anyone. Now she comes and gives me a hug, speaks to me, when she never used to."

He recalls another girl who did not have the ability to dedicate herself to the sport, but who lost 25 kilos in the aerobic classes the gymnasium offers.

"It isn't about having super-gymnasts, we want everyone to have the opportunity to be a gymnast. Later, it will become apparent whether they are the best or not, but everyone deserves a chance to try," he said. "After that, it isn't so much up to us, but rather a grant, the Spanish federation or the Olympic committee.

"We are the ones who push to start something, and afterwards we shall see."

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