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McClenaghan calling himself 'The Champ' and contemplating the vast expanses of the universe

Not even the sky is the limit for the soon-to-be Olympic gymnast, who faces a test of his credentials next week.

European champion and World Championship bronze medal-winning gymnast Rhys McClenaghan.
European champion and World Championship bronze medal-winning gymnast Rhys McClenaghan.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IF YOU’RE STRUGGLING to kickstart your brain in the mornings after 13 cruel months in which external stimulation has been a scarcity, Rhys McClenaghan has a solution for you.

“I wake up every day and watch motivational videos,” says the 21-year-old. “It seems simple but it’s one of those things that gets me ready for the day.”

It does seem simple on the face of it — but surely it takes a special type of content to get the adrenaline pumping through a former Commonwealth and European champion, World Championships bronze medallist and soon-to-be medal-chasing Olympian who competitively performs mind-boggling feats of physics in front of a live audience?

“Just type in ‘motivational videos’ on YouTube,” McClenaghan smiles. “I bet ya you’ll be hyped up for the day ahead!”

So, it really is simple. But it hasn’t been easy.

McClenaghan has wrestled with his fair share of pandemic malaise since even before the postponement of Tokyo 2020.

Ultimately, all work and no play makes dull people of us all, regardless of profession or pursuit — and particularly when home and office merge into one with less means of escape than is natural.

“It probably hit me in the first lockdown when I wasn’t able to train properly or go to the gym,” McClenaghan says, speaking at the launch of Avonmore Protein Milk’s ‘Bring Your All’ campaign.

“Of course, I had my family around me, which I was very thankful for, but I didn’t have my friends or coaches around. I had to kind of channel that motivation from myself.

“I found it so difficult to work out at home.

It taught me a lot about trying to motivate myself and the YouTube videos that I watch every morning stemmed from that first lockdown because I was lacking motivation quite a lot at the start. Probably everything panned in together – news of the Olympics being postponed and no competitions for the foreseeable future; there almost seemed like no point in training.

“But Facetiming different friends, getting them to tell me to get off my butt and then watching the YouTube videos kind of put things together,” McClenaghan says. “It’s motivation that I now know how to channel.”

B39I6350 Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan has teamed up with Avonmore Protein Milk to launch the new ‘Bring Your All’ campaign, which highlights the ‘positive, committed and never give up’ spirit within all of us involved in sport or exercise.

Those friends to whom he alludes come in all places and guises.

“It’s been a very good community, actually, with the Irish athletes: we were all messaging each other on Instagram and we’re almost trying to pick each other’s brains: ‘Okay, so how are you motivating yourself, how are you training?’ Almost getting some ideas which was very helpful.

“Even with different gymnasts across the world, just talking about different skills in gymnastics.

I was working on new skills throughout lockdown and I was messaging guys that I’d seen do that skill very well, Facetiming them while I was training. It was very positive in that way: you could see almost a community coming together where everybody wanted to help each other.

“…I was quite careful about who I was giving tips or tricks to!” McClenaghan laughs.

In May of last year, as he was navigating his way through training in that first lockdown, the Newtownards man lost one of his biggest supporters: his grandfather, William McClenaghan.

For years beforehand, William had made a point of referring to his grandson as ‘The Champ’, even when he wasn’t one. In a similar vein to Muhammad Ali professing his own greatness until he actually subscribed to it, William was projecting a sense of belief onto Rhys which the gymnast adopted and, eventually, cultivated as a mantra of his own.

This simple pleasantry from grandparent to grandchild has literally influenced McClenaghan’s career. But its importance has been accentuated over the last year or so as the Co. Down man has trained ceaselessly without the release, or indeed the affirmation, of competition.

“My Granda was calling me ‘The Champ’ before I’d won any form of significant medal, from a young age.

“It was quite a nice thing to have in my head, that I was the champion or that I would be the champion one day.

Obviously, there are no medals for the past year, and there’s nobody to put a medal around my neck and say, ‘You’re the champ!’ So, I’ve needed to tell myself that. I’ve needed to come into the gym and, if it was a good session, walk out those doors and tell myself, ‘I’m the champ. I’m the champion.’

Image from iOS (3)

These days, The Champ can at least train in Dublin in the company of coaches as he prepares for the greatest test of his credentials.

On his commutes south from Newtownards, he says, he tunes into “Northern Irish comedians on podcasts”, “podcasts about astrophysics and astronomy”, and “Joe Rogan, of course — he always has some interesting guests on.”

Ah, ri– wait now, what was that middle one again?

“I studied it in school for my GCSEs,” McClenaghan smiles, elaborating on his passion for phenomena beyond our solar system.

“I didn’t really gather an interest for anything in school in terms of education but since I stepped out of school, I’ve found new ways of learning.

“I didn’t read one book while I was in school but as soon as I left, I started to find different ways to motivate myself to learn. I don’t think the school system was my cup of tea.

There is nothing more amazing to me than looking up at the infinite universe at night time and seeing the beauty of every star.

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“It’s pretty incredible just to dive into all the smaller aspects of it, like quantum physics. It’s a never-ending learning curve for me and it’s a challenge as well.

It teaches you to be very humble and open-minded in everything you approach because… Life in itself can be almost insignificant when you look up at the skies and see that infinite universe.

“It puts everything in perspective. There are just so many positive things I can take from learning more about astronomy and cosmology.”

rhys-mcclenaghan Rhys McClenaghan with his 2019 World Championship bronze medal. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Back in this solar system, there will be 100 rotations of the home planet between today and the lighting of the Olympic Torch on 23 July. McClenaghan will get his chance to topple its current ruler in Basel, Switzerland, next week, when he and British kingpin Max Whitlock compete at the European Championships.

It will be their first tournament since October 2019, when reigning Olympic and European champ Whitlock took gold and McClenaghan took bronze at the Worlds in Germany. The Irishman, though, has beaten his English rival in two of their previous three meetings.

The Europeans present a chance to get things right and strike one last blow before the big show this summer.

Time to live up to William’s nickname once again.

“My body is 100%, my mind is 100%, just raring to go,” McClenaghan says. I’m looking forward to showing everyone what I’ve been working on. I’ve learned a lot.

“I’ve a new routine. It’s looking very good. There’s one new skill in the routine which will upgrade the difficulty value that I feel I was lacking in the World Championship in 2019. Hopefully this will be enough to take the gold medal.

“It’ll most likely be the routine I’ll be performing at the Olympics. It’ll be very good to showcase that at this European Championships and show the judges that this is an upgraded routine — but I’m not going to let the execution of the routine slide either.

I’m going to perform this routine as the cleanest gymnast in the world with as little deductions as possible.

“It would be great to get a name for that routine moving into Tokyo.”

Avonmore Protein Milk’s ‘Bring your all’ is a campaign that champions the ‘positive, committed and never-give-up’ spirit within all of us who give 100% to our sport or exercise, no matter what the hurdle. The campaign will see the release of several short videos showing a special insight into the ambassadors’ motivations, training and down-time routines throughout the coming months.

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