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'I'm not one to just go and compete': Ireland's first-ever gymnastics gold medallist has big plans

Teenage gymnast Rhys McClenaghan reflects on his incredible achievement at the European Championships.

Image: Neil Hall/INPHO

THE SAFE APPROACH for any athlete, particularly young and less high-profile competitors, is always to play down their achievements and ability.

That way, expectations are unlikely to skyrocket and failures will be almost expected.

Yet it says much about Rhys McClenaghan that he is unwilling to adhere to this strategy.

The 19-year-old gymnast has immense potential and he is not afraid to acknowledge his talent and the possibilities of where it can take him.

Ahead of the recent European Championships, he was quoted as saying: “Ireland have never won a senior European medal. I want to be the first — and why not make it gold?”

And while talking yourself up is one thing, backing up these words is another matter, and McClenaghan certainly accomplished the latter, triumphing in Glasgow to claim an unprecedented accolade for his country.

It continued an excellent few days for Irish sport, with Gary and Paul O’Donovan in rowing, Thomas Barr in athletics and Shane Ryan in swimming all claiming medals at the European Championships.

McClenaghan produced a score of 15.300 at the SSE Hydro, topping a field of eight finalists which included the reigning Olympic champion Max Whitlock of Britain, who missed out on the medals entirely.

With more than a week now having passed since his historic achievement, McClenaghan reflects on the feat in an almost nonchalant manner.

“I went out there and enjoyed myself,” he tells The42. “I knew that the training I did behind the scenes was enough to get that gold medal.

I take confidence in the fact that I’ve done hundreds of routines in training. Going into that competition, I felt I couldn’t have done more. I was confident in that sense. Whatever happens, happens. I was almost certain I was going to get through that routine. It was just how clean I did it that would get me that gold medal.

“My parents and girlfriend came to watch. Landing that dismount was just a huge sigh of relief. It was something I trained for my whole life.”

In addition to his family, McClenaghan says he also received plenty of support from his fellow athletes.

“A very special moment to me was when I was walking through the tunnel going back. A lot of the other gymnasts were still to compete in the other events. All of my heroes were high-fiving me on the way back. They’re idols of mine, I’ve been looking up to them since I was a kid, watching them on TV. The fact that they’re giving me praise, after winning the gold medal, it’s a very special feeling and it’ll stay with me.

“Gymnastics to me is a very different sport from everything else, it’s so incredibly respectful. I’ve learned so much morally from being in that sport from a young age. It really does teach everybody the respect and sportsmanship of competition.”

Britain Gymnastics European Championships Olympic champion Max Whitlock of Great Britain was among the competitors McClenaghan beat to gold. Source: AP/PA Images

McClenaghan certainly deserves all the acclaim coming his way. The Down native is in the form of his life. In addition to his recent exploits in Glasgow, he also won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in April, as well as triumphing at the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup in Turkey last July.

“Nobody saw me coming at the Commonwealth Games,” he says. “I knew I could hit those scores, but I don’t think anyone else did.”

Yet the European Championships gold was unquestionably the best moment of McClenaghan’s young career to date. He followed up a personal best in qualifying with another PB in the final.

“To me, it shows how vastly I’m progressing in the sport. If I can get [two personal bests] within a couple of days’ time, it shows me that I’m capable of going so much higher by the time the 2020 Olympics come around. If I can top that by a couple of tenths, I can potentially go and get that gold medal at the Olympics.”

The teenager’s achievement completed an exciting few weeks for Irish sport, and McClenaghan suggests the feats of compatriots served as motivation ahead of his own moment of glory.

“I think Irish sport is in a great position now. We’re showing everybody that we’re progressing at such a fast rate.

“With the hockey girls coming second at the World Cup, that was incredible to see before my performance in Glasgow. That actually did inspire me and maybe sparked a flame in my belly.

“Things like that can inspire the next generation and I hope I can inspire the next generation of gymnasts to come through, top my performances, and do better than I’ve done.”

After the intensity of Glasgow and the similarly grueling build up to it, McClenaghan spent a few days in Mallorca taken as downtime. The next event on the horizon is the World Championships in Doha, which take place between 25 October and 3 November, and the youngster feels a break was necessary before then on account of a tiring couple of weeks.

Being too uptight can affect you mentally,” he adds. “It’ll overall have an impact on your competition, so I think the fact that you can kind of relax, maybe have a couple of drinks and some junk food, it brings a positive energy for when you go back into training and start eating healthy and looking after yourself a bit more.”

As we speak, McClenaghan is on his way to Dublin for a training session. It is not a journey he was especially accustomed to making until recently. Back in June, his coach Luke Carson was given three weeks’ notice of redundancy by Rathgael Gym, where the teenager had regularly practised up until that point. An official statement issued to the BBC explained that the decision was made as a result of financial problems at the Bangor-based gym.

In the aftermath, McClenaghan shared a video of himself training in his back garden on social media with the following statement:

“I did say nothing would stop me. 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.”

Coming at a crucial time in McClenaghan’s career, there were fears that the setback would have a major impact. Fortunately, Sport Ireland and Gymnastics Ireland intervened, offering the teenager and his coach the use of their facilities in the capital. Nonetheless, it is a credit to McClenaghan that he has continued to excel amid this turbulent period.

“I think it was more a test of my character than anything,” he says. “It shows that I can go through any situation, still come out on top and get those gold medals and results.”

McClenaghan plans to remain in his current base for the foreseeable future.

“I’ve got a house down in Dublin now, which was organised by Sport Ireland and Gymnastics Ireland. That’s very beneficial. It’s not ideal by any means because I’m away from friends and family at home, but I’m on a mission to get those medals and get to the Olympic Games, so I’m thankful for their support in helping me get to that situation.”

Of Carson, he adds: “It really does help me, the fact that he’s very positive and that makes me very positive. I’m going in to training every day with a very good mindset.”

2013 Sainsbury's School Games - Day Three - Sheffield Rhys McClenaghan in action in the Gymnastics during day three of the Sainsbury's 2013 School Games in Sheffield. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

McClenaghan’s current progress is the reward for this arduous journey that he has spent more than half his life undertaking. It was at the age of six that he first took up gymnastics and at eight years old, he decided to drop all other sports.

“I was always doing different sports, doing different activities, like climbing trees and getting into mischief,” he recalls. “I think that’s what made my mum and dad bring me to gymnastics. They knew there was nice safety mats and foam pits to [break] my fall.

“I was always just wanting to do some activities as a kid. I don’t know how kids can sit on their iPhones and iPods now, because I could never sit in one spot for more than 10 minutes.

“I was also juggling different sports like swimming and football but at the age of eight, I made the decision by myself that I just wanted to focus on gymnastics. I think that was a very mature decision and I think gymnastics makes younger kids very mature at that age.

I was always very good at every other sport I’d done. But I was having to finish training early and go to football training. I wanted to stay on and learn more skills in gymnastics, so I felt playing other sports was holding me back a bit from what I really love.”

It was around the age of 16, when he was invited to compete at the British Championships, that the idea of a career in the sport started to feel like a realistic prospect. Long before this moment, however, his dedication was considerable.

“It was very tough when I was still in education, because I was finishing a full-day at school and then driving straight to training,” he remembers. “On that drive, I was eating my dinner, doing the homework and going straight into training for a four-hour session when I was only 10 or 11. That was tough, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Britain Gymnastics European Championships McClenaghan celebrates after winning gold.At left is Robert Seligman of Croatia and right is Saso Bertoncelj of Slovenia, who both tied for silver. Source: AP/PA Images

However, having finished school, McClenaghan is done with education “for now,” as he immerses himself in the disciplined life of an elite athlete.

“I’m just focusing on my training, especially being based down in Dublin. I’m up and down from Newtownards. I wouldn’t really have much time for any education at all at the minute.

“I’m always trying to advance my knowledge on how I can perform better, how I can train better and gain more motivation.”

And of course, there is one event that McClenaghan and every other gymnast values above all else — Tokyo 2020.

That’s been in my head for quite a while,” he says. “I think that would just be the pinnacle of my life, just to go to the Olympic Games and compete there. But at the same time, I’m not one to just go and compete. I know that Kieran Behan and Ellis O’Reilly have done a great job in qualifying for the Olympics and representing [Irish] gymnastics very well with their achievements, but I want to go there and make a name for myself and bring home medals.”

Such claims may sound audacious coming from a still relatively inexperienced teenager, but McClenaghan has made a habit out of backing up his words lately.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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