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“I remember stepping foot on to the track and pinching myself and telling myself I did it, I was an Olympian.”
Those are the words of former Welsh gymnast Sonia Lawrence (now Sonia McFall) as she looks back, now almost exactly 25 years on from her experience of walking out at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome as a 16-year-old to compete for Great Britain at the 1996 Olympic Games.
To this day, she remains the last women’s artistic gymnast from Wales to go to an Olympics.
Realising her Olympic dream came after she had announced herself with a stunning silver medal on vault for Wales aged just 14 at the Commonwealth Games in Canada two summers prior.
Sonia, who originally hails from Bedwas, also went on to compete at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 – before then successfully switching sports to athletics and, competing in the pole vault, went on to represent Wales at a third Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002.
She now lives in Hampshire bringing up her three children with husband John McFall – an orthopaedic surgeon and former British Paralympic sprinter who won 100m metre bronze at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.
“When I think about it, all of the feelings associated with that time in my life all come flooding back,” she said.
“My two eldest children are now becoming aware of what the Olympics means. Not many people where I live now know what I have achieved.
“However, having a son who wins his running races at school stating ‘I have good genes because my mum and dad are Olympians’ does make me aware of the legacy I’m creating.
“I don’t volunteer my history as an Olympian. We try to instil modesty in our children, however they do occasionally tell their peers and teachers what their parents have done!
“It is hard to believe that myself and my husband belong to a select group of people who have competed at the Olympics. Having OLY after my name is such a personal achievement.”
Guided by then Welsh national coach Gareth Davies, Sonia secured one of only two spots available on the women’s team for the ‘96 Games in Atlanta. Annika Reeder was the other.
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“As a team we had spent many weeks together training with the hope of getting to the Olympics,” continued Sonia.
“Sadly, our performance at the 1995 World Championships in Japan was not sufficient to qualify as a team. It was decided that there would be a two-day trial of compulsory and voluntary routines and only the top two would win a place.
“I knew I would have to compete at my absolute best to get one of those two places, and beat my fellow, very talented, team mates. Fortunately, I competed well and secured a place – even managing to stay on beam for the first time ever!
“I cannot tell you what that meant. I was so proud of what I had achieved. All of sacrifices I had made were worth it. It was also a huge way to thank my coach Gareth Davies and my family for supporting me.”
Sonia’s performance at that Olympic trial booked her a ticket to the greatest show on earth – and gave her an experience to last a lifetime.
“The day I got to go to London with my mum and pick up my Olympic kit was so much fun,” she said.
“It felt like Christmas day! Being 16, most of the kit was too big but, nevertheless, that is what we had to wear and I wore it with pride. It really makes you feel part of a team.
“My memories of the Olympic village are waking up every day and having a constant feeling of excitement. I was like a kid in a sweet shop in awe of all these amazing athletes around me.
“I remember being in a lift with Steve Redgrave and flicking through my Olympic handbook to find his picture for him to sign.
“There was a huge buzz on opening ceremony day. It was so exciting and you couldn’t do anything but smile and feel like you are at the biggest event ever! I remember stepping foot on to the track and pinching myself and telling myself I did it, I was an Olympian.
“The moment the Olympic flame was lit by Muhammad Ali the stadium erupted.”
Sonia has always maintained that getting through the trial was her Olympic medal.
She explained: “My reasoning behind that was that, at that time, GB gymnasts were not quite on the same platform as they are now.
“There was no way I would ever make the Olympic final or win a medal. That put me in a really strange frame of mind as I had never gone into a competition feeling defeated before.
“I wasn’t happy with my performance at the Games but no one can take away what I achieved to get there and it is an experience I will never forget.
“Becoming a mum has taken my life on a completely different path but I hope, if nothing else, what my husband and I have achieved inspires them to chase their dreams.
“I was more proud than anything of putting Wales on the map. Gareth and I made history and that can never be changed.”
Making history and writing her name into the record books was something Sonia made a good habit of doing during her stellar sporting career.
In 1994, she became the first gymnast to win a medal for Wales at the Commonwealth Games and, eight years later, then became the first Welsh athlete to represent her country at different sports at the Commonwealth Games.
“It was my proudest moment as an athlete I think,” reflecting on her success in that summer of ‘94.
“To make the record books as the first ever Welsh gymnast to win a medal is pretty special to me.
“Competing for Wales was always a huge honour. At the time I didn’t quite realise what I had done.
“It only really hit me when I phoned home and they said I had been on the news. I had a party thrown for me when I got home and they had made a big silver medal out of tin foil and hung it from the house.
“Lots of people came to congratulate me, even the local mayor – who gave me two very nice brandy glasses which, at 14, I had no use for, but they come in handy now.”
The third eldest of six children who all did gymnastics, Sonia began in the sport from the age of four at Bedwas Gymnastics Club. She moved to Heolddu in Bargoed three years later.
The biggest change came in 1992 at the age of 12 when, then at Bedwas Comprehensive School (now Bedwas High School), she made the decision to move away from Wales to Surrey in order to train full-time at the Spelthorne club with coach Gareth Davies, who was based there.
“I look back with fond memories,” said Sonia of her gymnastics career overall.
“I travelled the world because of it and it gave me a physical platform that allowed me to be a successful athlete and a bug for lifelong fitness. Making history at the Commonwealth Games and being an Olympian is way up there but accolades aside, sport has given me much more.
“It has given me a mental robustness that has stood me in good stead through the rest of my life and a sense of inner pride and confidence.
“I can adapt the skills I acquired to most situations and am always keen to learn.”
Sonia retired from gymnastics in 1998 following the Commonwealth Games while her competitive sporting career came to an end in 2004 – having ruptured her Achilles the previous year.
Between 2000-04, Sonia completed a Higher National Diploma (HND) in sport and leisure management, earning a distinction, before transferring on to the sport and physical education degree course at UWIC (now Cardiff Met), achieving a 2:1. “Considering I missed so much schooling I was so proud of this,” she beamed.
She tied the knot with John McFall in Machen in 2010 – the pair were originally set up on a blind date by a mutual friend… their sports physio Sian Knott!
Sonia and John have three children – Finley, 8, Isla, 6 and Imogen, 4.
Over the years, Sonia has been able to help inspire the next generation as a coach. She began coaching gymnastics in Barry a year after retiring as a competitive gymnast and returning to Wales in 1999, helping to progress the likes of Olivia Bryl.
A few years down the line she has also coached at Pen y bont Gymnastics Club, founded by Gareth Davies, in 2011, and helped set a young Emily Thomas on her way to the Welsh squad.
“I loved coaching,” she said. I feel I can explain things well because I have experienced the moves and can explain the feel of them as well as the technical aspect.
“I coached alongside Alison Lester with my son Finley attached to me in a sling. He loved being in the gym. Later I had my daughter Isla and then it became more difficult to coach. My husband, being a doctor, wasn’t around much to have them in the evenings to allow me to coach so it just became more difficult.”
The McFall family relocated to Hampshire in 2016.
“We moved for my husband’s work,” continued Sonia.
“I coached pre-school gymnastics at Rushmoor whilst I was pregnant with Imogen, but again it then got difficult when she was born.
“My son absolutely loves tumbling and is so proud he can now front somersault on a trampoline. He does recreational gymnastics at our local leisure centre. Isla is in her early stages of joining a squad in Pinewood Gymnastics Club.
“Isla leaves the gym with a smile on her face every session and keen to go back in. This is all I wanted for my children. I have always wanted my children to do gymnastics because it is such a good foundation sport but I have been so conscious that I didn’t want them to do it just because I did.
“We encourage them to do other sports though as we want them to have a choice of sport.”
Sonia still maintains very close family ties to Wales and also gymnastics, with four of her nieces and two of her nephews attending Valleys Gymnastics Academy.
So what does the future hold and can she still do the moves?
“At the moment I am a full-time mum,” added Sonia.
“I have been making leotards for my children for years and am about to take the plunge and start selling them so that is quite exciting. Initially I practiced using my old leotards. I cut them all down to size so
Isla wears my Olympic trial leotard and Imogen my first ever GB leotard, and even Finley wears one of my old Olympic leotards.
“I would love to coach again but I don’t want my children to have to do gymnastics just because I am in a gym all day. We shall see.
“My husband got me in to running as it is something his family have always done. I love the fact I can just put my trainers on and go. I like to do some body weight stuff too and Joe Wicks is great for this.
“I can still do a straddle lever to handstand at 41! I have to put all my might into it though. My daughter Isla can now do one so I have a video of us doing it together which is super special. Not sure I will be able to do it for much longer though.”
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