'Researching Good Friday Agreement' in fight to compete and 2022 world title win

Rhys McClenaghan reflects on a positive end to 2022 and the challenges he faced throughout the year.

IT’S THE FINAL of the men’s pommel horse at the 2022 Artistic Gymnastics World Championships, and the first two contestants have failed to complete their routines.

rhys-mcclenaghan McClenaghan on the pommel horse. Roger Evans / INPHO Roger Evans / INPHO / INPHO

Loran De Munck of the Netherlands is up first, but he makes a premature landing right as he’s coming into his final flurry of combinations. He’s wincing as he tumbles down at the critical moment. The Japanese athlete, Ryosuke Doi, hops up shortly after, but he only manages to stay up for roughly 20 seconds before the apparatus spits him out.

“Are we in for one of those sorts of pommel horse finals?” comes a remark from a TV commentator after witnessing those two early exits.

Ireland’s Rhys McClenaghan then approaches the stage. He knows what it’s like to be booted off the pommel horse. McClenaghan was favoured to medal at the Tokyo Olympics last year, but one fractional misplacement of his finger saw him fall in the early seconds of his routine in the final.

He’s coming into this World Championships in the midst of a mixed season. He missed out on a spot in the pommel horse final at the European Championships, and he also failed to defend his gold medal at the Commonwealth Games; a silver medal would have to do after what had been a difficult build-up to the competition.

Additionally, he’s working with a newly revamped routine. Those changes were introduced after the European Championships in August, and were prompted by an error that was persistently creeping into his performances. It’s now November, and Rhys is displaying his new suite of skills on a pommel horse that has already dismissed its first two contestants.

There’s also a lot of history at stake: Ireland has never produced a gymnastics world champion. With that resting on his shoulders, McClenaghan chalks up his hands and springs himself into the air.

He swings around the apparatus flawlessly before dismounting to receive a superb 15.300 from the judges. He doesn’t end up as the pommel’s third victim. It’s a decisive winning margin, as the 23-year-old from Newtownards in Down struggles to hold back tears of joy after bagging that elusive world gymnastics gold medal for Ireland.

“I knew they fell,” McClenaghan tells The42 while recalling that epic day in Liverpool last month, still buoyed by the relief of finishing a tumultuous year on a high.

“I watched the first guy do his routine. I didn’t analyse it, and I can be susceptible to analysing their routines, but I didn’t analyse too much. So, he fell and the guy before me.

“I always stand up and visualise my own routine when they start. I went through my visualisation routine and he was still competing, so I knew he had fallen, and you can hear the crowd as well so you can’t ignore it.

“The pommel horse is an apparatus where many people fall off: it’s momentum-based. If that momentum stops in any way, you’re coming off. That’s what happened at Olympics: I took one finger out of place, and that stopped the momentum.”


On the day we speak, McClenaghan has just returned to training after a two-week break. The job at hand is never far from his mind though. Even in his brief off-season, he was still sneaking off to the gym while on holiday in Lanzarote to put some work in.

He managed to fit in a visit to his brother Elliott too. McClenaghan refers to his only sibling, who works in statistical analysis, as “the brains of the family”.

There is gymnastics in the McClenaghan gene pool. Rhys’s aunt was a gymnast, and his father Danny dabbled in it when he was in school. Of the two brothers, it was Rhys who showed a flair for the sport as a youngster.

“I was teaching myself how to do a back flip on the trampoline at the age of six,” he recalls when asked his earliest memories of being acrobatic. “When Mam and Dad saw that, they were like, ‘This is the sport for this guy.’”

Rhys also played football, and enjoyed swimming and field hockey among other sports along the way, but by the age of eight, he knew which activity he was leaning towards. Already, he was prepared to dedicate himself fully to one and forget the rest.

“I vividly remember having to leave gymnastics training early to go to football training one evening. I remember telling my Mum that I just wanted to do gymnastics and put all my time into gymnastics. It was just that feeling of missing out and the fact that I had to leave gymnastics training early.

“All the rest of the kids got to continue to train and learn new skills. I wanted to be the best and that was certainly going to be achieved by spending all my time in a gymnastics club.”

There have been some aches and pains to suffer through since resuming his full blast of training after his break, but he’s quickly ironing out the creases. When we speak, it is the first day that he has started to feel like a gymnast again.

“It’s such a relief,” he says, “and that’s the main word I use to describe this. Coming into the gymnastics centre, knowing that I’m a world champion, achieving one of my career goals. It’s so much of a relief to have done that but looking at the smaller picture, finishing off this very difficult year with a win like that, changed what could have been the worst year of my career into the best year of my career.

“Just with that one performance, and that’s gymnastics. You can mess up on that one opportunity or make it count. Thankfully, I did in the World Championships.”

rhys-mcclenaghan McClenaghan at the European Championships. Tom Maher / INPHO Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

Delving further into that masterful routine at the Worlds, McClenaghan confesses that he did have one momentary lapse of concentration during his final run. It was just a few seconds where his mind wandered briefly, before he brought his focus back to finish the job. And in an event that goes by in a flash, a second’s grace is about all you’ll get before the routine comes to an abrupt end.

The quick movements over and back on the apparatus are almost involuntary, but it’s important for McClenaghan not to drift into autopilot. And he kept his concentration sharp until the end. 

Changing McClenaghan’s routine was a decision that both he and his coach Luke Carson came to together. McClenaghan, who documents his gymnastics career with engaging and well-produced video blogs, pored over all the video footage that was at his disposal, while Carson looked at his performances in competition. The vlogs are a reminder of all the lovely places that McClenaghan has visited with his sport, but at a time like this, they were also a vital resource.

It was a new skill in McClenaghan’s routine that was causing the bother. It was repeatedly tripping him up. Challenges were expected throughout the season, but not to this extent. Between them both, they put the necessary alterations in place.

“Luke stripped me back to basics,” McClenaghan explains about the impact of his mentor who he has known since he was a young gymnast; they’ve been working together since Carson retired from gymnastics in 2014.

“You want to have a catalogue of skills that are ready to go, and that you’re ready to perform. That’s the essence of a good gymnast.

“We’re not just training these 10 skills that make up one routine, and having those set in stone. You want to be able to chop and change those when needed. Say for example, the guy before me in the pommel horse final does a crazy routine and gets an amazing score that would score 15.5, then Luke might come to me and say, ‘Look, add this skill in to put up the difficulty.’

“That skill is sitting there, ready for me. Even straight after the [World Championships] competition, when we were still on the floor, Luke said to me, ‘If I had told you to put that skill in, would you have done it?’ And I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ That’s the kind of confidence that you want to be feeling in that moment for sure.”


Despite the unfortunate results that had impacted his year, McClenaghan was feeling good heading into the World Championships. The way he looked at it, his disappointments at the Commonwealth Games and Europeans could be summed up as just four routines that didn’t go well. Coming into the Worlds, he was racking up 100 clean routines that would put him in medal contention.

He was happy to focus on the possibilities in front of him rather than torture himself with thoughts of what could have been.

rhys-mcclenaghan-with-luke-carson-after-competing McClenaghan pictured with his coach Luke Carson. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

But it wasn’t just unsatisfactory performances that McClenaghan was dealing with this year. Before the Commonwealth Games, he discovered that he, along with two other Northern Ireland team-mates were deemed ineligible to compete. The ban was based on the fact that they routinely represent Ireland in worldwide Federation Internationale de Gymnastique [FIG] competitions.

The issue has always been lurking before previous editions of the competition, but the athletes were always permitted to go in the end.

This time, someone pressed for a ban. The ruling forced McClenaghan into a fight that was picked for him. He launched an appeal to have the decision overturned, and found himself trying to familiarise himself with our country’s complicated past.

“I’m not a politician,” he explains, “I’m a gymnast and I want to go to competitions and perform routines. I was put in a position where I was having to almost be a politician and do my research on politics and the Good Friday Agreement. I shouldn’t have to do that. But that’s the way it was and I was forced to try and educate myself a lot more on it.

“Whoever was in charge, they put their foot down and tried to follow their inaccurate policies. I didn’t think we were going because the decision was made. It’s not like we were trying to stop them from making this decision, we were told, ‘You’re not going to the Commonwealth Games.’

“Thankfully, the decision got overturned and hopefully it doesn’t happen again in the future.

“It’s never a bad thing to educate myself on the history of our country. It’s certainly a good thing. But you don’t want younger gymnasts coming up and almost having this situation that we had this year in the back of their minds. There’s further talks to be had to definitely have that decision overturned.”

There was just two weeks to go before competition when McClenaghan discovered on Twitter that he was free to go to the Commonwealth Games. He might not have realised it at the time, but upon reflection, he accepts that the stress of that fight for eligibility affected his focus. And understandably so.

But even with all that in his recent memory, he travelled to Liverpool for the World Championships feeling confident.

rhys-mcclenaghan-poses-for-a-picture-with-his-gold-medal Coming home to a hero's welcome with a gold medal after the World Championships. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

“When I was focusing on trying to harness that confidence going into World Championships, I was thinking about all the successful ones I’d done in the lead-up to this competition on the routine I was doing. So, I wasn’t even thinking about the four routines that I messed up on because they were the old routine, and it felt like a fresh start when I went back to the other routine.

“I felt so confident going into this competition. Even in the qualifications and the final, it just felt like training, and that’s exactly what you want to feel as a gymnast. You don’t want to feel those extra nerves, and that just showed in my routine.”

McClenaghan returned to a hero’s welcome from that tournament and will have a different Christmas to look forward to this year compared to the 2021 holidays. Instead of dealing with the pain of missing out on Olympic glory, he can face into 2023 as a world champion.

There’s another year to go before McClenaghan can plan his Olympics redemption in Paris. That’s the one that will complete his medal collection, but he’s happy to wait for his chance.

“My goal is to go to competitions and perform a great routine. The rewards will come after that. I don’t even believe in momentum from competitions. I feel like if I go to each competition with the sole job of doing my job and routine, the rewards will follow.”

The42 is on Instagram! Tap the button below on your phone to follow us!

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel