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'I want a poster outside one of my gyms and have it full of people wanting to aspire to what I’ve achieved'

Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan talks injury, turmoil, and Conor McGregor.

Rhys McClenaghan on his way to winning the gold medal at the 2018 European Championships.
Rhys McClenaghan on his way to winning the gold medal at the 2018 European Championships.
Image: Neil Hall/INPHO

“ALL I COULD do is shrug my shoulders and say, ‘that’s sport’”, says Rhys McClenaghan.

Although he could barely do that.

It was at the World Championships that his hockey-stick progress in 2018 plateaued; a fall from the pommel horse in Doha meant missing out on the final round while introducing himself to a strange and unruly visitor called disappointment. 

It was invited by injury: a torn labrum in McClenaghan’s shoulder had seeped fluid atop nerves, which restricted movement. 

“There wasn’t even any pain associated with it. I just couldn’t lift my arm. And for the discipline I do…it was a bit hindering.” 

The injury flared up ten days from the competition, and brought an abrupt end to a string of success which included gold at the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships. 

“I don’t see the World Championships as a reflection of my performance at all. I know a lot of people see that as I’d gone the whole year winning every gold medal possible. 

It flared up quite close to the competition which was annoying as I had reached my full potential, endurance-wise at training. I was scoring huge scores, I was bringing judges to practice competitions and hitting huge scores; scores that hadn’t been scored before with a brand new routine and the highest difficulty level.

McClenaghan decided to have surgery in November, and is now making his way through the final stages of his rehabilitation. At 19, he has the time and the talent to remain patient, and is not rushing into a comeback with the World Championships in Stuttgart in October the major target for 2019. 

A top-three finish there will ensure Olympic qualification, at which he is rated as one of Ireland’s top medal prospects: McClenaghan was this week among one of seven prospective Irish Olympians to be awarded the highest bracket of annual funding, worth €40,000. That this has been guaranteed for next year too gives some added stability.

Other parts of his life have stopped rocking, too. Two months after beating the Olympic champion at the Commonwealth Games, McClenaghan’s coach Luke Carson was made redundant from Rathgael Gym in Bangor. 

“It was a sticky situation”, recalls McClenaghan.

The Gymnastics club and Carson disagreed on which direction to bring the coaching programme: Carson wanted to prioritise high performance, while the gymnastics club were eager to focus on participation. 

The dispute roiled for weeks, and meant McClenaghan didn’t get the chance to do a full practice routine in the three weeks leading up to a World Cup event in Turkey…which he won anyway. 

Sport - 2014 Commonwealth Games - Day Five McClenaghan's coach Luke Carson, competing at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Source: Dominic Lipinski

“It was decided it was best to make Luke redundant, pretty much. I know there were a lot of young gymnasts there, and a lot of them left the sport which is a huge shame. But I’ve stuck with Luke through thick and thin.”

Amid the disruption, Gymnastics Ireland set McClenaghan – and Carson – up with a house five minutes from the Sport Ireland Institute in Abbottstown. 

“It was the perfect scenario. It wasn’t a nice thing to do to leave my gym at home and move to Dublin, but the support I get means a lot to me and it will stick with me for the rest of my career.

At first it was hard: it was my first time moving away from home. For the first couple of months I wasn’t too happy as I wasn’t in a routine. I was always in my car, driving up and down constantly to see my family. It was very unsettling. But now that I’m in a clear routine, I’ve settled and I know the people I’m working with, I feel a lot better about the whole thing.

McClenaghan first met his coach when he was eight: finding him training at a Lisburn gym.

Nine years later, when Carson decided to retire and take his first steps into coaching at Rathgael, he phoned McClenaghan to come and train.

They continued to train there until last year’s turmoil.

He has been very supportive of me, and it means a hell of a lot. I wouldn’t be where I am without him. We were saying to each other the other day: I just would have been a kid with talent without him.

“It is just the two of us in the house. I find it harder for Luke than myself, as he has a family at home. He is building a house, and has a kid and a wife, so if I was in his situation it would be more difficult.”

If he continues his current trajectory, McClenaghan will retire with a hefty medal haul, but his definition of success is something less likely to be weathered.

“One of my main goals in my career is to push the sport of gymnastics onto other people. Even if you’re not going to pursue an elite pathway, I think it is such a great sport to have for any other sport or any other activity.

I went to Conor McGregor’s gym this week and had a look around, and the place is packed. You know for a fact that wouldn’t be the case if he hadn’t done what he has done. The place was packed out, people are inspired by him and they want to go to his gym and follow his footsteps.

“For me, that was an eye-opener. ‘Woah, I want this to happen to me!’

“I want a poster of me outside one of my gyms, and have it full of people wanting to aspire to what I’ve achieved.”

Nobody would shrug their shoulders at that. 


About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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