Double Olympic gold medalist Gervasio Deferr works for free in a deprived corner of Barcelona helping underprivileged children improve their lives and follow their dreams through gymnastics.
The 31-year-old, Spain’s most decorated gymnast, was Olympic champion in the vault at the Sydney and Athens Games, and won silver in the floor exercises in Beijing, but after a decade at the top he retired in January last year to go into coaching.
Deferr 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 neighborhood of San Adrian del Besos on the northern outskirts of the Catalan capital.
The former gymnast trains about 100 boys and girls aged between seven and 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 aged 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 realize our principal objective,” he said.
The neighborhood 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 last decade, local authorities have worked to try to improve the area, which suffers from higher than average 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 euros (US$50) a month for a 1.5-hour training session twice a week, and up to 75 euros for three-hour sessions, six days a week, which is around half the going 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 euros a year, but what do we want? This is a social project in La Mina,” Deferr said as he sat in a cultural center 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.