“Growing up my parents encouraged me to play outside and enjoy being outdoors, climbing trees”, Rhys McClenaghan says of his humble beginnings in gymnastics.
McClenaghan has become a household name in the sport, blazing a trail that has captivated fans all over the island of Ireland. At just 21, he has European and World medals to his name and has big plans for the 2021 Olympics.
Therefore it is not surprising to learn that a career in the sport was always on the cards from a young age.
“We had a trampoline at the back of our house and I would have spent hours on it. So my first memories of gymnastics would have been trying to do backflips on the trampoline when I was four/five.
“When it came to the time where my parents were like, ‘okay, let’s bring him into sports and get him involved’, gymnastics was a no brainer for them. They just saw me doing backflips, doing crazy stuff, jumping off the shed and onto the trampoline and doing a frontflip for them so gymnastics was the clear choice.
“The first time I went into a gymnastics club that wasn’t my back garden was in my local leisure centre in Newtownards. That leisure centre is actually being demolished now so it’s strange. That’s where I started out as a six-year-old and learned the basic fundamentals of gymnastics.
“It’s just one of those things where without even thinking about it, I just loved the sport. To me, stepping into the club with all the equipment was just heaven.”
From a young age, McClenaghan discovered he had a natural talent for the pommel horse. Young gymnasts are started out on a training tool called the mushroom so they can learn to turn their body in a circular motion.
The children would compete to see how many circles they could complete in one attempt and McClenaghan found his numbers running into the hundreds, far exceeding those of his peers.
In the years that followed, the Down man slowly transitioned from mushroom to pommel horse where he began to flourish.
Taking the world by storm at the Commonwealth Games
Then in 2018, the world sat up and took notice of the 18-year-old who beat the reigning world and Olympic champion Max Whitlock at the Commonwealth Games.
“It’s quite rare that it happens when you’re young like that. I was 18 when I won the Commonwealth Games so I took the world by surprise. I didn’t take necessarily take myself by surprise because I knew what I was capable of at the time.
“It was also a sense of relief. It was surreal. In the moment, you’re thinking ‘I’ve done my job, what I’ve been training for.’ But when you step back you think ‘Wow, I’m a Commonwealth champion.’
“When I was growing up, my Dad always said, ‘you can literally do anything you want in gymnastics but as long as you get to the Commonwealth Games and represent Northern Ireland, I’ll be happy. You can finish after that competition for all I care’.
“So it was surreal for the whole family. Our standard is set at competing in the competition but to go out and win it was something else. It made me hungry for more.”
From that point onwards, McClenaghan’s profile continued to grow. He became the first Irish gymnast to win a European medal later that year. However, he suffered a major setback at the 2018 World Championships when he fell during a routine.
That made his World bronze medal in 2019 all the sweeter. Especially since it guaranteed him a spot at the Tokyo Olympics.
“It was such a great victory because I was coming back from the shoulder surgery. In 2018 at the championships, I fell off the pommel due to the shoulder injury. Literally since that day, everything has been leading to the World Championships in 2019. We knew we needed to get the surgery, knew we needed to mend me to get to that point. So everything was just building up to that point.
“And obviously when I qualified for the final, I qualified for the Olympic Games. That was like the perfect storm. Everything just fell into that one moment. It just showed that all the hard, hard work that I put in that year was worth it. It was something so special.
“When I found out that I qualified for the Olympics, I burst out into tears.”
The responsibility of being a role model
Having achieved so much at such a young age, there is a lot of expectation on McClenaghan’s shoulders heading into next summer’s Games. Yet he does not view that pressure as a burden.
He is delighted to act as a role model for young Irish gymnasts, something that was missing as he grew up in the sport. He wants to leave a legacy in gymnastics, one that will be broken by the generation to follow.
“I feel it’s a very positive thing. Rather than seeing it as a weight on my shoulders, I see it as support for gymnastics and I can take a lot of pride in that. Young gymnasts have a role model who is aiming high and winning these medals and that’s something I didn’t really have in the sport growing up.
“Everytime I win a medal at an international competition, it’s amazing because it’s never really been done before. That’s not a responsibility I take lightly. I know that these are Ireland’s first and there’s much more to come. I always say that I want the next generation below me to exceed my achievements. I’m hoping that’s the direction gymnastics takes in Ireland.
“That’s one of my major motivations. I know how important it is to leave a legacy behind you in sport. I hope there’s kids at home who watch and think ‘I can do that’.”
Given his maturity and confidence levels, it’s no surprise that McClenaghan found the silver lining in the delay of the Olympic Games. In his eyes, it gives him 12 more months to set himself apart from his opponent and use his young age to his advantage.
And he fully intends to give the performance of his life when the opportunity eventually rolls around.
“I want to win a gold medal and to give the performance I’ve been training for my whole life. To show everybody all the hard work I have done in my career. I can’t wait for that moment.”