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A European Champs injury scare, the 'bigger picture' of Olympics and vlogging life as an elite athlete

Rhys McClenaghan had a wrist injury heading into the recent European Gymnastics Championships.

ALMOST TWO YEARS on from his last competition, Rhys McClenaghan came close to seeing a long-awaited chance to measure himself against the best in the continent pass him by last week.

Rhys McClenaghan Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan.

The 21-year-old, who is also Tokyo-bound later this year, was a top medal prospect heading into the Gymnastics European Championships in Switzerland.

McClenaghan has a gold medal from the 2018 European championships as well as a bronze at the 2019 World Championships. The latter event was his last competitive outing before travelling to Basel for the Europeans.

He made an encouraging start to the championships, qualifying for the final of the pommel horse in first place with a score of 14.766. McClenaghan’s medal hopes received a further boost ahead of the final as Olympic champion Max Whitlock of Great Britain failed to progress.

Performance seemed to be affecting McClenaghan’s competitors due to falls during their routine. Four of the eight finalists in total slipped off the apparatus.

Everything seemed to be aligning in McClenaghan’s favour as he approached the pommel horse for his final spin. But he too fell mid-flight, picking up a score of 13.566 which left him in fifth place.

He had been compromised by a wrist injury from shortly before the championships. The day before his departure to be exact. There was even a worry that he might not be able to compete, and thus miss out on a big opportunity to prepare for the Olympics.

“The day before I was meant to travel I sustained a wrist injury on a simple conditioning exercise and that kind of threw off the whole perfect programme we had leading up to that,” McClenaghan explains to the media over a Zoom call.

“As soon as I did it I wasn’t able to move it in the correct ways, I wasn’t able to put pressure on it so when that happens the first thoughts that come to mind are, am I able to compete on this?

“Obviously, we don’t want to make it worse because the ultimate goal is the Olympic Games so if we were to push my body to the absolute limits for the European Championships and screw up Olympics then it’d be silly.

rhys-mcclenaghan McClenaghan in action at the European Championships. Source: Claudio Thoma/INPHO

“We gave it three days of rest, five days out from competition, so there’s two and a half days before the competition where I was able to put pressure on it. The fact I was able to work with the physios and they could give me reassurance that it’s okay to put pressure on it, there won’t be any further damage was a very good thing.

“I could go into each training session with a bit more confidence, not thinking I would damage it any more.”

McClenaghan has fallen off the pommel horse plenty of times at training, but hasn’t dismounted unfavourably at competition since the 2018 World Championships.

He explained the nature of his injury and highlighted the input of his physio team to monitor the problem in his wrist and assess his condition to compete at the Europeans.

“It’s like a cartilage in my wrist that’s inflamed, we did work so closely with the physio team, my two physios Paul and Julianne that work in the Sport Ireland Institute and it is times like this you realise how strong the team is in Sport Ireland and you wouldn’t otherwise see that side of it if things are going perfectly.

Source: Indeed/YouTube

“But when things go a little bit bad, it’s almost eye-opening to see there’s so much support behind us athletes and the fact I can work so closely with everyone in the Institute makes that support team so much stronger, makes that support team so much stronger. And I’m glad I was able to work so closely with the physios to get reassurance day in, day out that, ‘Okay, this looks good, there’s progression, we won’t injure it any more by doing this skill or that skill.’”

There’s been some noteable firsts in McClenaghan’s career so far. In 2016, he won a first-ever gymnastics medal for Ireland at the European Junior Championships. He became Ireland’s first gymnast to win a European medal two years later.

He’s also the first Irish gymnast to qualify for a world final, where he won a bronze medal at the championships in 2019.

While McClenaghan didn’t come back with the result he wanted this time around, it was a good showing from the Irish team at the European Championships, with Emma Slevin and Adam Steele both reaching the all-around finals. 

McClenaghan is back at home now, and the disappointment is starting to give way to more reflective energy.

“It’s interesting to see how the brain evolves from immediately after a loss where all I feel is frustration, and then it kind of evolves into, it’s not so bad, this is European Championships, you start to justify it a little bit more and see the bigger picture, and that bigger picture is always Olympic Games.

“Even though the Europeans didn’t go as we had planned and at the time there was so many thoughts going through your heard now you give it a couple of days to think over, it becomes a lot more justified in your head.

“This is the reason we went for the more difficult routine, this is why that happened, and why that did happen is mostly because of the injury in my wrist at the minute.”

There’s an understandable eagerness to get back into the gym and correct the mistakes of last week. But as he waits for his wrist to mend, McClenaghan is placing more of a focus on training that puts his core and fitness levels to work.

Between now and the Olympic Games, he’s also looking at the possibility of competing at a World Cup in Croatia where he hopes to give a truer account of his ability and demonstrate a routine that matches “the world standards that I’m capable of.”

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rhys-mcclenaghan McClenaghan holding the bronze medal he won at the 2019 World Championships. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Still only in the early stages of his 20s, McClenaghan has an engaging manner. Anyone who’s curious to learn more about his life as an elite athlete can easily find out more on his Youtube channel. 

He uploads vlogs of himself at training, in competition, and even going out for a walk with his dog. He also speaks directly to the camera with interesting comments and insights for the viewer.

“The young gymnasts inspire me every day to be a better gymnast every day,” he says when asked about why he set-up a vlog channel.

“But outside of gymnastics, as we know, social media and more online footage is craved more than ever by the younger generation. When I went on a couple of Zoom calls with a couple of clubs in Dublin, one question that I was always asked was, ‘When are you going to start posting on YouTube again?’ by the younger generation.

“It sparked an idea when those kids were asking me.”

He intends to vlog his experience at the Olympics, and is looking forward to how the event will be staged in the midst of a global pandemic. 

There’s no immediate plans to pursue video work down the line but he enjoys the comfort of always having a camera nearby to pour this thoughts into if he needs it.

“There’s loads of stuff that I just don’t put on Youtube. I would talk in my head throughout the day a lot so pulling out the camera and just saying my thoughts is quite therapeutic. It makes those good thoughts that I want to remember stick in my head better when I say them out loud.

“I guess it’s something similar to if someone writes something in a journal, they’ll remember it easier. It’s the same for me when I talk in front of the the camera.”

Team Ireland partner and Global job site, Indeed, created a short film on the extraordinary journey of Ambassador Rhys McClenaghan and his determination to take home Ireland’s first ever gymnastic Olympic medal through their #TalentUnleashed series.

Watch the full video at youtube.com/watch?v=heSUPSDFfA0

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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