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'I cried like a baby, if I'm honest. I was 8 years old telling my mum I wanted to go to the Olympics'

Rhys McClenaghan won Ireland’s first-ever World Gymnastics medal in Stuttgart on Saturday.

RHYS MCCLENAGHAN STARES into the distance, smiling, his World Athletics bronze medal sitting on a table a few inches in front of the 20-year-old.

He has to say the words out loud, almost to confirm he isn’t dreaming. “I’m going to the Olympic Games,” he grins. “It’s even weird just saying it now… but it’s true.”

gymnastics-ireland-homecoming-press-conference McClenaghan won bronze at the 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

It’s been a whirlwind past week for McClenaghan. Last Monday in Stuttgart he booked his place in the 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships final, as a result ensuring his spot at next summer’s Olympics in Tokyo. Pure euphoria.

His impressive pommel horse routine in qualification drew a score of 15.200, a near-flawless display meaning he would become the first-ever Irish gymnast to make a world final — while in the process also realising his childhood dream of becoming an Olympian. Double-delight.

Not content to just be a participant in Germany though, he delivered another incredible performance on Saturday afternoon in the pommel horse final to clinch a stunning bronze. Ireland’s first-ever medal at the Gymnastics World Championships.

Arriving back at Dublin Airport late last night, he was flocked by young fans looking for a glimpse at their hero. Children asking for selfies, autographs, each pining for a chance to hold the glimmering medal in the palm of their hand.

It wasn’t all plain sailing in Germany, though. McClenaghan posted his excellent 15.200 performance late on Sunday and was forced into an anxious wait to see if he had done enough to qualify for last week’s world final.

Watching the final participants run through their qualifying routine on his laptop, he jumped for joy around his hotel room once confirmation had been received that he had done enough. A phone call to his mother followed shortly afterwards.

rhys-mcclenaghan-is-greeted-by-members-of-excel-gymnastics McClenaghan is greeted at Dublin Airport by members of Excel Gymnastics. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I cried like a baby, if I’m honest,” he explains. “I cried like a baby. I almost knew [I had done enough] the last half of that day where the last people were qualifying. People were saying to me: ‘you’ve pretty much qualified, there’s no-one that could beat that score’.

“But I knew I had to wait for the last person. I was in bed on my laptop watching that last person and when I knew I qualified I just called my mum straight away. The emotions just fell out of me because I was just thinking back to when I was 8 years old saying to my mum that I wanted to go to the Olympics.

We couldn’t get a sentence out of each other,” McClenaghan smiles, recalling the phone call with his mam. “We were both just gurning over the phone. It’s a dream come true, a childhood dream come true. I’m going to the Olympic Games.”

It’s been a rapid progression for the young star. He won gold at the Commonwealth Games in April 2018 and followed that up with European gold four months later. He was named RTÉ Young Sportsperson of the Year and continued his fine form with a silver medal in May at the Gymnastics World Cup.

That World Cup silver medal, alongside last week’s World Championships bronze, have both also been achieved after recovering from a six-month shoulder injury that required the 20-year-old to undergo surgery for a labrum tear.

rhys-mcclenaghan-on-his-way-to-winning-the-gold-medal The 20-year-old won European gold last year. Source: Neil Hall/INPHO

“Creating history for Ireland is special,” he says of his latest medal. “It’s very special to me, especially coming back from surgery because of how difficult it was. It’s a very low point in an athlete’s career when you have to go through that recovery process.

“You’re taking a big step back, I couldn’t lift my arm above my head. I had to re-learn basics that I was doing when I was 8-year-old. You’re at a stage where you’re not doing any physical exercise and it’s a massive drop off.

You’re constantly training your whole life and then you’ve this massive period where you’re not training all of a sudden. It’s mentally as well as physical demanding and that’s why I’m very proud and honoured to be sitting here with this world medal around my neck.”

His family flew out to Stuttgart for Saturday’s final and were there to share his moment of joy clinching bronze, alongside his coach Luke Carlson. McClenaghan describes that winning feeling as relief, more than anything else.

Once a gymnast executives their routine to the highest level they know they are capable of, then all else fades away, he says. It’s very much a case of controlling the controllables and not focussing on what your competitor delivers.

“It’s mainly relief, because I performed the routine. It’s not necessarily because of the result or winning a medal. You would have even seen when my score didn’t beat Max’s [Great Britain's Max Whitlock won gold], I was still happy. I had my own relief and joy because I can’t have an influence on my competitor’s score.

“I was just so happy that the work that myself and Luke put in was showcased on the world stage. We really want to work on the execution score, make it into the 9s, and that’s exactly what I did. Now we can look at building difficulty while maintaining that execution score.

“I said to Luke as soon as I jumped off the podium: ‘How do I keep doing this?’ His answer was: ‘Rhys, you put in the numbers. You put in the work, you’re completely dedicated to the sport.’

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He will now take a few weeks off to unwind and recover, before planning out a schedule to match him up against the best in the world ahead of next summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“I might go away for a few days just to get a tan,” he laughs. “I’m going to have a couple of weeks off now, take a much-deserved break because I’ve been very disciplined throughout the programme in the build-up to the Worlds. So I’m just going to use this time to relax and just start over the programme. 

“When we start the programme we can focus on some new skills to add in the difficulty and put in different combinations.

rhys-mcclenaghan-celebrates-winning-the-gold-medal The Co Down native will represent Ireland at next summer's Olympics. Source: Neil Hall/INPHO

“We’re planning out a schedule for competitions throughout the year which will get me competing again against the best in the world and learning from them.

“There’s a potential training camp in Tokyo, so that will be a great build-up for the Olympics. It’s an exciting year ahead and it’s all building towards Tokyo in 2020.”

Rhys McClenaghan dreamed of making it to an Olympic Games since he was a young child growing up in Co Down.

After another medal-clinching display on the pommel horse and his place in Tokyo confirmed, he has nine months to go before his dream becomes a reality.

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About the author:

Aaron Gallagher

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