- Secret Gymnast – Bunty: #1873 (4 December 1993) – #1884 (19 February 1994)
- Art: John Armstrong
Ginny Jones, enjoys sports, but she has yet to find the one that fits her best, she gets a bit too enthusiastic for team sports! After a hockey match she gets into a fight with some girls from the competing school. She escapes them by running away through a building site. Unknown to her, while she is maneuvering around the site, she is being watched. The older woman sees potential on her and invites her into her house. Ginny keeps a safe distance as the woman seems strange and her house derelict. She leads her to a gym and tells her she has been looking for a promising student for quite a while and wants to train her to be a gymnast. Ginny agrees to be trained despite some oddness from her new coach, like her habit of calling her Gina and wanting to keep the lessons secret.
Coach is a hard taskmaster and in keeping up with her training she gets in trouble in other parts of her life. Ginny does feel she is learning though and thinks maybe she doesn’t need the coach or the hassle. But after doing badly, in a school competition, she realises she does need Coach. She tries to follow Coach’s directions, so even when her dad treats the family to McDonalds she sticks to her diet. She is tempted by a doughnut but then she hears Coach’s voice telling her to remember her training, which causes her to drop the doughnut. Ginny thinks it must have been her guilty conscience, that made her hear the voice. Later when they pass the derelict houses, where Coach lives, her father mentions that they will all be torn down soon and only few squatters live there. So Ginny concludes that’s why Coach is always in a rush, because she isn’t supposed to be there.
After she has to letdown her school P.E. teacher by turning down a rematch competition, Ginny is happy that Coach wants to enter her in a local competition. There is a fee to be submitted with the entry form but when she brings it up with coach, she goes strange and looks tired. Ginny says she’ll get the money somehow, she thinks if Coach is a squatter she musn’t have much money either. Ginny manages to scrape money together but it leaves nothing for her mom’s upcoming birthday. She decides to cook her a birthday tea instead, but then she loses track of time at practice and is home late. Her younger sister, Kylie, is upset that she spoiled mom’s birthday.
Ginny’s secret training causes more problems as she falls out with a friend, after she doesn’t help with a paper round as she promised. She does think that at least Coach will be pleased that she placed third, at the local competition, but Coach informs her she expected more. Ginny doesn’t know if she should continue, saying that perhaps she is wasting Coach’s time. Coach backtracks, but Ginny is still feeling fed up. Coach says if she doesn’t see her the next day than she’ll take it that the training is over. But the next day Ginny has to look after her brother and sister while her mom is at the dentist, she doesn’t want to let them down again, but it causes her to be late to practice. As soon as she can she rushes to practice, Coach is still there but she looks ill. Concerned, Ginny says she’s ready to dedicate herself to practice. Coach informs her they are running out of time she must practice before and after school.
At school she feels obliged to play a hockey match but is injured. Coach of course is not pleased with this, Ginny says if she could explain to her teachers about her gymnastics training, she wouldn’t be put in this situation. But Coach insists until she wins the regional championship she must keep it secret, after that it doesn’t matter. She has ointment to help with Ginny’s ankle and after a bit of rest she is able to pick up her training. As the competition nears, Ginny improves and Coach praises her more, but she also seems more forgetful. Meanwhile the houses are to be knocked down soon and Ginny gets cleared away by some Workmen. She goes back later and more of the house is boarded and a sign saying “Danger Demolition” is outside. She does find Coach still there, but she shies away when Ginny goes to physically thank her for her help. The big competition the next day, she bumps into her friends who are there to watch and she explains that she is a contestant and that’s what she’s been up to all this time. Ginny is delighted when she wins and rushes to tell Coach. She has to climb in a window as the door is blocked and there is no sign of Coach. She is going to leave Coach a note, but when she picks up a piece of paper to write on, she finds it’s and old newspaper article that says Coach Vera Ramsey along with her student Gina were killed two years ago (how this paper got there in the first place is a mystery in itself!). Ginny yells out her thanks to the Coach and promises to keep up the hard work, a year later she has kept her promise and remembers to thank both Vera and her current coach when she is presented with her medals.
With the release of Tammy’s Bella at the Bar, it seems an ideal time to look at other John Armstrong work featuring a gymnast. A possible prototype to Bella, A Leap for Lindy, was already discussed on the Jinty resource site, and here in Secret Gymnast we get to see a post-Bella work. Bella is probably Armstrong’s most famous work, he took inspiration for Bella from his niece and we can see here that Ginny bears a close resemblance to Bella. Armstrong has said he enjoyed drawing gymnastic stories (he certainly had a talent for it), so it is bit surprising that other than Bella there are so few of his stories that feature a gymnast. He did a lot of work for IPC and DCT but this is the only gymnastic story that I know of that he did for DCT (if I’m wrong and he did others, please let me know!). Perhaps gymnastic stories just weren’t as popular as they were in the 70s/early 80s or Bella’s fame was too much and they didn’t want her to overshadow other stories, as one can’t help but draw comparisons.
A lot of the stories Armstrong drew, featured a working class protagonist, Ginny is no exception, but perhaps being set in the 90s, the world has improved somewhat since the Thatcher era. Money is still tight, Ginny struggles to get money together for entry form, there are people without work, the school can’t afford proper gymnastic equipment, there are derelict houses…. but Ginny’s father has a job, they can send her younger sister to ballet lessons (even if they couldn’t afford to also send Ginny), and have treats like a trip to McDonalds. Also it’s noted the houses being knocked down and new development built up, which will offer more jobs, so Britain doesn’t seem to be as desolate a place as it is portrayed in some of the 70s stories (although it’s still far from perfect!). It is interesting looking at the social commentary in these stories as an adult, as I probably didn’t read much into it as a child.
Unlike Bella, at least Ginny does not have to deal with cruel guardians, her family are generous with what they have and seem supportive, I’m sure they would have supported her gymnastics if they knew about it (although they probably wouldn’t approve of her being trained in a rundown house with a strange woman!). The main conflict of the story comes from Ginny keeping her training secret, it leads her to let down her family and friends with no explanation. Ginny does feel guilty about this and there are times she sacrifices her gymnastics in order to make up for previous events, such as competing in the hockey match and babysitting for her mom. As we see her struggle to balance these things, we also root for her to succeed and are pleased to see her training pays off.
The other driving plot of the story is the mystery surrounding Coach. Why she lives in a run down house, what her name and background is, and why she seems confused and abrupt at times. There are hints of something ghostly about her from early on, but not enough to make it too obvious. One of the more blatant instances of supernatural Ginny hearing her voice stopping her from breaking her diet, but even that can be explained away. There is real sense of urgency in Coach, Ginny must win as she hasn’t the time to start again, she knows time is running out. We see her strength fading, presumably her spirit is tied to her house and gym and the closer it gets to it’s destruction the weaker she becomes. We can hope she finds some sense of peace, when she achieves what she set out to do – train a champion and that is why she lets go and is not there when Ginny comes to tell her the news. It is nice that the last panel shows that Ginny acknowledges her first Coach and honours her.