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Flexible friends raise the bar in old rivalry

With only one gymnastics spot available for Australia's men at the Games, Josh Jefferis and Thomas Pichler must once again put their great friendship to the test, writes Dominic Bossi.

Josh Jefferis and Thomas Pichler never learnt about keeping your friends close but your enemies closer. The Australian gymnasts are the final two men's hopefuls still in contention for the only spot at the Olympics. As the battle intensifies in the final days of qualifications, the winner will celebrate his ticket to London while ending the Olympic dream of his best friend.

Jefferis and Pichler have gone from members of Australia's 2010 gold medal-winning Commonwealth games team to rival candidates, but the strong bond between the two has not wavered. Watching as they support each other through a training session at the Australian Gymnastics Championships, it is clear the two athletes share a camaraderie that many professional teams would envy.

Cracking jokes during breaks of routines, the candidates have adopted a positive outlook towards their situation which, they believe, will benefit Australia's chances of success at the Olympics.

"I'd prefer to be one of the two than not be, so I like the situation I'm in, actually, because I still have an Olympic chance," Pichler said. "It's such a strange situation, it's hard to describe the feeling of it, but it's better to be up against someone you know than someone you're just coming up against."

Aside from being the host nation in 2000, Australia has never earned the right to send a full men's team to an Olympic Games before and can only send one competitor as part of the world team.

After a selection process last November, Jefferis and Pichler discovered their friendship would again be tested as they became the final candidates for Australia's one allocation.


"We just went, 'this will be a fun roller-coaster for the next couple of months' so we've enjoyed the process and made the best of it," Pichler said.

The two Queenslanders have continued to train together throughout this lengthy campaign, and both argue they know the other's routine better than their own. While the process has been made easier by their friendship, they're both anxious to conclude what has been a long and, at times, arduous process.

"I would say it's pretty intense,''Jefferis said. ''The last two years have been the most intense periods of my life and it would be good to get this competition out of the way and focus on the Olympics - whether as a reserve or an athlete. It's been such a long and drawn-out process.''

The fight for the prize of a lifetime - an Olympic spot - is nothing foreign to the two best friends. Such is their high profile within Australian gymnastics that Pichler and Jefferis have often been forced to compete against each other for selection for the only men's spot, including the unsuccessful qualifiers for the previous Games.

"It's nothing we've never experienced before," Jefferis said. ''We've been through it before and gymnastics is an individual sport, so nobody can affect your performance when you're up there. We've been competing with each other for some time now and we both have our own approaches and focus on our own jobs and support each other … We've both been through so much together so we want what's best for each other.''

London will be the debut games for one of the two, while the other will travel as a reserve. The duo have also competed with each other at five world championships and the Delhi Commonwealth Games, where they have tasted success and consoled each other in defeat.

"Each and every one of those has been an incredible lead-up, competition, celebrations and commiserations," Jefferis said.

Both competed in trials for the Athens and Beijing Olympics but, in each case, were unsuccessful. Now, Pichler, 25, and Jefferis, 26, are in the prime of their careers. Winning a team gold in Delhi was a rare opportunity to pop the cork together and has given them a taste of success they desperately want to replicate. "They were two of the toughest times of our lives but we were also part of the first-ever Australian men's team to win gold at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi,'' Jefferis said. ''We wrote history with that and we both won our individual gold there as well. It certainly has been an incredible journey."

Jefferis, whose strengths are on the rings and parallel bars while Pichler's are with floor exercises, have five days to convince selectors of their merits. Commonwealth success and improved rankings at world championships have made the pair confident of breaking Australia's medal drought at the Olympics.

"Josh and I are capable of making an all-round final at the Olympics and, once you make the finals, then it's anyone's game," Pichler said. ''It's a very cutthroat sport so, realistically, whoever goes to the Olympics should be looking to make an all-round final."

The two candidates may be separated into the lead role and the supporting cast by the end of the championships on Saturday, but they'll remain friends for life.