Note: This interview was originally published in the February 2022 issue of Inside Gymnastics Magazine. Since the interview Thorpe’s submission to add a leap to the code at the 2022 Paris World Challenge Cup was denied.

Heath Thorpe: Putting the Art in Artistic Gymnastics 

By Ashlee Buhler 

When looking for examples of fully extended leaps, perfectly pointed toes, and stunning flexibility, a male gymnast likely wouldn’t be the first person to come to mind. The reason is rather simple: men’s gymnastics is typically associated with strength, power and big skills, while expectations for beauty and grace have long been reserved for the women. Heath Thorpe, a Senior International Elite from Australia, wants to change that. 

Thorpe began turning heads with his social media posts, often showing snippets of his routines or new combinations he is working in the gym. He has received recognition for his attention to detail and clean lines, but also for doing something hardly ever seen by a male gymnast: leaps. Thorpe can execute them to perfection, fully extending into a 180 degree split — sometimes beyond. But as beautiful as they are to watch, the question of is it worth it? always looms. If Thorpe wants to put these elements into his routine he won’t receive credit, it will merely be for aesthetics and his own satisfaction, because unlike on the women’s side, leaps and other dance elements are not listed in the Code of Points for the men. 

This wasn’t always the case. In early versions of the code leaps were listed as an option, but it came with a subconscious caveat. Arthur Gander, who is credited with creating the men’s code of points, once told Modern Gymnast in 1968 that men “must be careful of going too far with the feminine trend.” A statement that reinforced the idea that elements showing grace and flexibility are for women and were seen as a threat to the sports desired image of masculinity on the men’s side. 

By willingly showing off his artistic side, Thorpe is fighting the gender expectations that have existed in the sport for decades. At the same time, he’s enjoying his gymnastics more than ever. He doesn’t care if his efforts won’t be recognized by the judges; he’s beautiful, he’s unique, and most importantly – he’s himself. All the while, he’s changing the narrative–one leap at a time. 

Inside Gymnastics sat down with Heath Thorpe to discuss the artistic limitations on the men’s side of the sport and the message he hopes to send.

Take us back to the very beginning. How did you get started in gymnastics? 

I did a lot of sports when I was younger. I came from a very sporty family and grew up in rural Australia, so it was very common for sports to be a big part of our lives there. I did mostly karate, horse riding and dance; they were my three things when I was younger. But I was also super flexible and was doing cartwheels and back somersaults on the trampoline. My Auntie was a gymnast when she was younger and she begged my mother to get me into it. She was like, ‘No he’s not doing gymnastics. He’s going to play basketball or football.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t want to do them mom.’ So she said, ‘Fine, I’m ok with you doing gymnastics’ and it kind of just went on from there. I fell in love with it instantly and it just became my life from then on. 

It’s not very often that we hear about a male gymnast with a dance background. What styles of dance did you do? 

I did jazz, tap, and hip hop. It wasn’t competitive but I did it for five years. Honestly, it was a big part of my childhood. A lot of people ask me about having a dance background when talking about my history and I never did ballet or anything like that, but I went to a school called the Victorian College of the Arts from age 14 to 16 and it was a specialist school for different kinds of talents like music, visual arts, circus, gymnastics, and ballet. So I have a lot of friends in ballet and was exposed to it at a younger age. 

In gymnastics was there somebody that you looked up to when you were first getting started? 

Around the time of the Beijing Olympics was when I got into gymnastics. On the women’s side it was Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin. Obviously Nastia had a lot of influence over my idea of artistry, clean lines, and beautiful finishes. On the men’s side, I think my two biggest inspirations were Diego Hypólito and Zou Kai on high bar. I think it’s really cool that you actually see that influence now in my gymnastics. I’m doing very similar skills to Hypolito on floor and on high bar I’m doing very similar skills to Zou Kai. 

What are some of your goals in the sport — both short and long term? 

We have the Commonwealth Games coming up this year and that’s always been a benchmark event for us so I’m hoping to make that team. If I do, I’m hoping to make it to finals and of course the aim would be to get a medal there. So that’s my immediate goal and then I need to get to the World Championships. I still haven’t competed at a Worlds! I was a reserve in 2018, I didn’t do 2019, and then I wasn’t selected for this year’s Worlds, so I really hope 2022 is the year I can go to a World Championships. (Update: Heath made the 2022 Australian Men’s Worlds team!) So that’s the next step and then of course Paris is a big aim, but in the meantime between then and now, I want to get a few skills named after me,  I want to submit a few leaps obviously, and get some new skills on high bar. I have these goals, but I think my focus has shifted a little bit within my gymnastics. I really just want to enjoy it now; do skills I enjoy, do routines I enjoy, and just use it as an avenue to show my personality. It’s not just, ‘I want a medal and that’s it.’ It’s become a lot more for me and that’s rewarding in a sense. 

You’ve posted so many videos of you doing incredible skills and unique combinations, is there something you’ve been training that you’re itching to get on the competition floor? 

Well, I started punching out of my double arabian the other day which was really cool because I always watched Aly Raisman and Diego Hypólito do that when I was younger and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I just kind of live my Aly Raisman realness in the corner! I’m just standing there pretending I’m in the London team final and I’m ready to punch out of it [laughs]. 

And she re-posted the video of you doing her iconic tumbling pass! 

She messaged me as well! She’s like, ‘You’re such a beautiful gymnast.’ I totally fangirled! So there’s that skill, but I’m honestly just really excited to go all out with artistry this year. I have some really cool stuff I’m going to bring into the competition. I find my gymnastics is so much cleaner because I’m focusing on my artistry. Something my friends in ballet have taught me is that every movement needs to have a purpose. It needs to have a finishing point. So when you really focus on those finer details it translates into your skills. 

You have the most stunning lines and beautiful flexibility! You stand out because you make your gymnastics about so much more than just power and big skills. How much time do you spend in the gym focusing on artistry? 

So much, especially these days. I probably do 30 minutes of artistry and flexibility work to start my sessions now. It used to be something I just played around with when I wasn’t training but now it’s a focus in my training regimen. It’s at the forefront of my gymnastics. I work so much on my active flexibility and I do a lot of ballet work. I work on my leaps individually and set aside time in my training for that. 

Leaps are not in the code of points on the men’s side — why do you think that is? 

Outside of the gymnastics world there is a stereotype of men’s gymnastics being feminine or being seen as gay or girly. We’re told that all the time as kids. When you say, ‘I do gymnastics’ someone replies, ‘That’s for girls.’ So you’re told from a young age that the sport you’re doing is emasculating, essentially. I think in retaliation to that, men’s gymnastics has created this environment of hyper masculinity and heteronormativity. Artistry in the eyes of men’s gymnastics equals femininity and for some reason we see that as a bad thing. I think we see leaps and artistry as very easy and I don’t know… almost a girly thing. But in reality it requires so much work and time and it’s really hard to do it well. So I think it’s been in an attempt to make the sport seem more masculine that we’ve just taken away the space for any creativity and I think that can be a really dangerous thing because it just becomes a sport about power tumbling. Whilst it’s impressive, it’s being driven away from what we saw in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. You have some amazing gymnasts like Vitaly Scherbo who had amazing lines and beautiful form and even Kyle Schewfelt in 2004. We’re not seeing much of that anymore and I think that’s in response to the environment we’ve created to retaliate against a stereotype as something we don’t want to perpetuate. 

Even though leaps are not in the code, have you thought about purposely throwing in more leaps and turns just to make a statement? 

Yeah! This year I’m excited to go all out with artistry. My biggest hesitation with my old coach, and it’s not that he wasn’t supportive, he just simply said ‘You’re not getting rewarded for it. You’re going to be putting in energy and it’s going to be taking away from your tumbling.’ And it’s a completely valid point because if you’re going to take the very short time we have on the floor and use it for something that gives you no difficulty or reward—then what’s the point in doing it? But for me, I enjoy myself more when I’m performing these things. I enjoy that reaction from the crowd and I enjoy how it makes me feel. I feel more confident, I feel more engaged with my routine and I feel like I have a better end result. I talked to a judge about the psychology behind good form and artistry. They spoke about even though artistry isn’t necessarily being rewarded, as judges, when they see this beautiful presentation it gives them the subconscious thought that you are a cleaner gymnast. So it still does reward you in ways you may not think. You might not see it in the D-score but it does subconsciously affect judging in the E-score at least. 

What has the reaction been from other gymnasts and coaches to the artistic side you’re trying to bring to the sport? 

For the most part it’s been positive, especially recently. When I first started doing these things I think it was a little bit like, ‘Oh this is new, I don’t know how to react to this.’ But as I’ve kept doing it I think people are like, ‘This is really cool stuff. This is hard. This is great.’ My teammates would try a leap and be like, ‘Oh my gosh this is really difficult.’ And I’m like, ‘I know, that’s why I’m doing it.’ [Laughs] It’s been mixed. In Australia they are less receptive to my artistry, but when I was in Europe it was so well received and everyone loved it. I really felt that and it gave me confidence to do things how I want to do it going into this next year and the rest of my career. 

Your following on social media has grown quite a bit in recent years, there’s a lot of eyes on you! What message do you hope to send to people, not just as a gymnast, but as a person? 

I think I just want people to sit back and realize that gymnastics is truly a space for everyone and that’s what it should be. It should just be a means for movement, community, and health. It doesn’t have to be an end goal, it doesn’t have to be an elite sport. It needs to be a space where everyone is welcome and safe to be themselves and participate. I hope by staying true to myself and being honest with who I am and being authentic, I hope that inspires people and helps them realize they too are welcome in these spaces if they may have not thought they were. 

Photos by Lauren Grigg from The Photo Studio 

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