'Anything that's strange, people are going to poke at it. I wouldn't play football too often, I had to turn parties down'

Gymnastics star Rhys McClenaghan has risen to become one of Ireland’s most exciting Olympic prospects.

RHYS MCCLENAGHAN’S COACH offers an interesting insight into how gymnastics was neglected, looked down upon and sneered at in this country when he was growing up.

“I’ve been involved in gymnastics for 21 years. From when I was a kid, to where the sport is now, it’s eternally different,” Luke Carson says.

“Nobody knew of gymnastics and it was almost laughed at when I was a kid. Now it’s actually cool. You put on that leotard now, it’s like wearing a cape — you’re like a superhero to so many children.”

european-championships-2018-day-eleven Winning gold in the Men's Apparatus Final at the 2018 European Championships. Source: Jane Barlow

There’s no getting away from it: the impact which McClenaghan is having on the sport in Ireland is huge. A European gold medalist, Commonwealth Games gold medalist, World Cup silver medalist and, just last weekend, a World Championships bronze medalist.

His rise has been rapid, electric, and now the 20-year-old has his sights set firmly on next summer’s Olympic Games. He hopes to secure a podium finish and has every reason to feel confident about the prospect of making that dream into reality. Last Saturday in Stuttgart he became Ireland’s first-ever world finalist in gymnastics.

By reaching the final in Germany, he ensured his placed at the Olympic Games, but followed up that achievement by picking up Ireland’s first-ever medal with an astonishing third-place finish. McClenaghan went where no other Irish gymnast has in history and he has been constantly breaking new ground en route to the biggest stage of them all in Japan next summer.

Putting his most recent achievement into context, the Co Down native has only recently returned from a crushing six-month injury lay-off after seriously damaging his shoulder at last year’s World Championships in Doha.

McClenaghan went through a painstaking recovery process, having to re-learn basic routines and skills he had first picked up at 8 years old just starting off in gymnastics as a child. At the start he couldn’t even lift his arm above his shoulder.

sport-sainsburys-2014-school-games-day-four-manchester 15-year-old Rhys McClenaghan (middle) after winning gold at the Sainsbury's 2014 School Games in Manchester. Source: Anna Gowthorpe

He says he doesn’t shy away from challenges, though. Never has. It’s just not in his make-up. Setbacks are what separate the haves from the have-nots — no-matter what walk of life you trek — and pressure is something the young star has become accustomed to.

From the outside looking in, an Irish gymnast from Newtownards securing European and world medals seems like an astonishing underdog story, but McClenaghan’s talent has long been admired since he was a teenager. With that comes a level of expectancy.

I don’t shy away from the pressure at all,” he says. “I had pressure going into that world final in Germany last weekend as one of the top-dogs. I had pressure going into European Championships after winning Commonwealth Games, so I’m no stranger to pressure and I don’t let it get to me whatsoever.

“Of course I do feel nervous on the day of a competition or in the lead-up, but it’s a strange, strange thing: as soon as my hands go on the pommel horse, everything goes away. It just feels like home when I put my hands on the pommel.

“Everything goes back to the numbers I’ve done in the gym. It’s just like a switch. Every single time I do it, I put my hand up on it a little bit — nervous, butterflies in my stomach — but as soon as my hands go on those handles, everything goes away. It’s just like second nature doing that routine.”

rhys-mcclenaghan He won Ireland's first ever Gymnastics World Championships medal in Germany last Saturday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The scoring system in the pommel horse is based on the difficulty and execution of your individual routine. One must keep their feet and legs pointed straight at all times except while performing scissors and flairs. Point deductions come if you accidentally hit against the apparatus.

McClenaghan was the only world finalist in Stuttgart last weekend to deliver a score of 9 in terms of his execution, an incredible feat considering he was up against Britain’s 2016 Olympic gold medalist Max Whitlock and two-time Olympic medalist David Belyavskiy from Russia.

The Irish star is firmly in their midst as an equal, as preparations for Tokyo kick into gear in the coming months. With that Olympic dream edging closer and closer, McClenaghan thinks back to his early days taking his first steps into the sport.

He was a ceaselessly excited kid, always full of energy. As a means to channel all of that energy — and with a nod of encouragement from his aunt who had represented Northern Ireland in gymnastics — his parents enrolled a young Rhys into a local club at the age of six.

He admits that sometimes he was teased for taking part in what is considered to be a traditionally female sport, but says he was headstrong and determined to fulfil his dreams and ambitions of becoming an elite-level athlete in gymnastics no-matter what.

“Everybody gets teased in school,” he says. “But I never saw myself as a victim. Anything that’s strange or different, people are going to poke at it. I never fell into that box of being bullied. I knew that one day I was going to go to world championships, hopefully one day to the Olympics.

“So I knew myself what my goals were and I wasn’t going to let anybody talk me out of them or have peer pressure be involved. I did sacrifice a lot when I was at school. I didn’t do ‘boy things’ where I’d go out and play football too often. I had to turn parties down and stuff.

But I enjoy the sport and that’s what it always came down to. I enjoyed walking into that gym every day and putting in my best effort. I felt accomplished after that, and that’s why I continue doing the sport.”

With European and Commonwealth gold medals secured over the last two years, McClenaghan has been propelled into the national consciousness. He is a household name now and was recognised with RTÉ’s Young Sportsperson of the Year award at the end of 2018.

The question stands, though: What makes him such a unique talent? What makes Rhys McClenaghan stand apart from everyone else?

“It’s a hard question to answer,” his coach Luke Carson says. “I think ultimately it comes down to the psychological strength and emotional fitness. You can train, you can do the numbers — and I’ve seen it. In my time in England there was lots of people that were unbelievable gymnasts, world-class, but ask them to put their hand up and it was a different athlete altogether.

“That’s when you decide what road you can go down — that’s what separates the champions from people who can only make it into a final, or not even get past qualification. Qualification is actually a lot more stressful than finals, believe you me.

“This whole trip to the World Championships in Germany; it’s unbelievable what Rhys has done. To come back from everything over the last couple of years [Rhys was forced to train in his own back garden after losing the use of his regular gym] and to be able to put his hand up in an Olympic qualifier where he knew even a medium error could cost him a world final — he handled it like an absolute boss.

“Then to up that again in the final, to increase his star quality and to better his score from qualification and win bronze, it’s absolutely unbelievable. So I think psychological strength is the answer as to what makes Rhys so special. When you put your hand up, you have to believe wholeheartedly that you’re going to do it.

rhys-mcclenaghan-with-luke-carson Former gymnast Luke Carson has been the young star's full-time trainer since 2014. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“There’s no swaying from it. No swaying from it in any way, shape or form. You have to believe with every cell in your body that you’re going through and that you can rely on your numbers. As long as you’ve done your numbers in the gym, if you know you’ve done 100 routines and every single one of them can make a world final, then all you need to do is go out and have fun.”

A former gymnast who competed at Commonwealth Games, World Cups, British, Scottish, World and European Championships, Carson has been working with McClenaghan full-time for the last five years.

Carson says the talent was there for all to see, but that it needed to be honed in the right direction. Focussing on the 20-year-old’s mental fitness has been absolutely fundamental, too, as it is a facet of gymnastics which many coaches often overlook.

It’s something that every coach does, they tend to work from the head down,” Carson explains. “They do physical preparation, but forget about everything above the shoulder — the psychological side. It’s something that I worked very hard on with Rhys.

“To give him the confidence to allow him to realise his talent. That talent hadn’t been nurtured yet when he 14 or 15. It was important to me to help nurture that talent, because like I said, I’d seen so many gymnasts who could have been world champions, could have been Olympic medalists, but it just didn’t happen.

2013-sainsburys-school-games-day-three-sheffield The Co Down native's talent was spotted from an early age. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“So it was very, very important for Rhys to be able to work on that psychological strength, because we knew it would pay off down the line when he’s done all the numbers, when he’s matured.”

McClenaghan has moved to Dublin in the past year, having parted ways with Rathgael Gymnastics Club in Bangor. Those were trying times for the young star. His coach, Carson, was made redundant by the gym and McClenaghan decided to stand by his mentor, which meant parting ways with Rathgael.

With no other facilities available, he was forced to train outside in his own back garden ahead of the 2018 Artistic Gymnastics World Cup, where he won a silver medal. Posting videos on social media, McClenaghan maintained his self-belief.

I did say nothing would stop me,” he tweeted, posting a video training in his back garden last year.

“This brings back memories of using this pommel horse in my garden when I was nine, because I wanted to spend more time on what I enjoyed most. Thanks everybody for the supportive messages, staying positive no-matter what.”

Sport Ireland and Gymnastics Ireland came to his rescue and McClenaghan is now based in Abbotstown, training alongside other high-performance athletes on a weekly basis gearing towards the Olympics.

After securing Ireland’s first-ever world finals medal in Germany last weekend, McClenaghan will take a few weeks off before heading into an intense preparation period for Tokyo where he hopes to make history with a podium finish.

His week in Stuttgart at the World Championships not only brought with it medal success, but also the opportunity to meet some of his all-time heroes, including American star Simone Biles.

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McClenaghan got the opportunity to meet the four-time Olympic gold medalist and was left star-struck by the 22-year-old, who he ranks as the greatest gymnast in the sport’s entire history.

I went to the gymnastics banquet where we had drinks and we had fun. It was very nice to talk with different athletes, I even got to interact with Simone Biles and people like that who are my heroes — Krisztián Berki, who was the 2012 Olympic champion.

“It’s very cool to be around that environment where there’s people you have looked up to and people you’ve come along the journey with.”

“I was actually a little bit nervous,” he says on meeting Biles in Germany a week ago. “It was the first time I met her. It was good talking to such a legend, she’s the greatest of all time, hands down.

rhys-mcclenaghan-is-greeted-by-members-of-excel-gymnastics McClenaghan greeted by members of Excel Gymnastics at Dublin Airport last weekend after winning bronze in Stuttgart. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I just went up and said congratulations. She was with some of the other American gymnasts and it was so cool to see them, because they set the standard so high in women’s gymnastics and it’s something I respect so much.

“You look at some celebrities and wonder do they really deserve all this money and all this fame — she 100% deserves it, because she is the greatest of all time. To see her bringing gymnastics to the public eye even more than it already is in America and worldwide, it’s very good from my point of view as a gymnast to see that. ”

When he found out he had qualified for the Olympics, McClenaghan called his mother Tracy back home in Down straight away. The pair were lost for words. “I cried like a baby,” Rhys recalls, laughing now.

He has achieved so much in such a short space of time, but his impact on the sport of gymnastics has been massive these past couple of years. With each medal, more and more newcomers arrive at gyms wanting to follow in his footsteps.

“Currently we’ve got 37,000 members,” Gymnastics Ireland CEO Ciaran Gallagher says. “We’ve been growing organically about 20% each year. We’ve got everything from small, voluntary clubs that run out of school halls, to full-time businesses that have turnovers of up to half a million euro.

rhys-mcclenaghan-with-his-gold-medal He currently trains at Sport Ireland's Institute in Abbotstown. Source: Neil Hall/INPHO

“Our largest club in the country is Douglas Gymnastics Club (Co Cork) which has 3,000 members, which makes it one of the biggest sports clubs in the entire country. We know that we’re a facility-based sport. We know that the numbers for potential are huge.”

“I think it’s massive,” his coach Luke Carson adds. “People within gymnastics in Ireland now have a hero. Every kid starts like Rhys did. They go to a club, they join for recreational purposes, but then they get selected for the B team and the A team and then the High Performance team.

But a few weeks ago Rhys said something very interesting: ‘You don’t need to have an Olympic dream to be a gymnast.’ I think that’s wonderful, because it’s very true. There’s only about 5% of athletes that will go down the High Performance route, which means there’s 95% of people who still have aspirations and who still need a hero.

“It hasn’t been an easy road for Rhys and to be able to tick off all these boxes and have all these medals, it has been wonderfully positive for the sport. Every result, there’s an influx of people wanting to get started in gymnastics.

“I know a lot of the gym owners in Dublin and they tell us that after each result there’s influx in participation. It’s directly correlated.”

rhys-mcclenaghan-on-his-way-to-winning-the-gold-medal McClenaghan pictured during his pommel horse routine en route to European gold last year in Glasgow. Source: Neil Hall/INPHO

As for the man himself, his sole priority is on preparations for Tokyo. Having already set so many records in this country and in Europe, the 20-year-old has further ambitions for the near future. Always focussed on what lies ahead, the next achievement.

“There’s been so many thoughts running through my head,” McClenghan says.

How I can get that gold medal, how I’m grateful for this [World Championships] medal. I always come to the same conclusion that I’m just so proud and grateful to be where I’m at.”

Hard-working, determined and gracious, the young star is undoubtedly an inspiration to so many, both young and old. His positive mentality and humble nature are infectious to those around him and his achievements point towards an even brighter future on the world stage, where he belongs.

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Aaron Gallagher

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