There’s something about the Irish psyche which means many of our elite athletes tend to play down their achievements or make safe predictions about their potential success in future competitions.
Focusing on the quality of their opponents, or using phrases such as “I’ll give it my best and see what happens” are often expressed and it’s clear to see why. It lowers expectations and takes the focus off themselves so that they can solely concentrate on their preparation.
However, with Rhys McClenaghan, the 19-year-old teenage gymnast from Newtownards, he takes a slightly different approach. He exudes confidence and he’s not shy about outlining where he stands among his peers.
McClenaghan has come off an incredible 2018 where he secured gold at the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games in the pommel horse event. Such success heightens expectations but McClenaghan is comfortable among the ever-increasing discussion regarding his medal chances at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
“I know the Olympics are a little bit away now but at the minute, I know that I’m one of the top pommel horse workers in the world which does put me in medal contention for a lot of things but my main goal is to go out there, do my routine, do my job,” McClenaghan tells Pundit Arena.
“I can’t control what anybody else does in the competition so if I go out there, do my job and do the best routine that I can possibly do, that should be a job done.”
For all the success McClenaghan achieved in 2018, there was some disappointment too. At the World Championships in Doha, he took a fall midway through his routine to dash his hopes of a medal.
The fall was due to a lingering shoulder injury, which has subsequently been operated on but the recovery brought its own challenges to someone whose very DNA requires him to remain active.
“It was the first long-term injury I’ve had in my career. I’m a gymnast, I’m going to have these little injuries here and there but that was the first surgery that I’ve ever had and first long-term injury. It was a very different experience. It wasn’t necessarily a very nice experience but it was very different. Especially the four weeks just after the surgery, I was essentially not training at all because I couldn’t do anything.
“My arm was in a sling and I couldn’t do any exercise. That took me in a big drought mentally. It was very challenging for me. It was the most time I’ve had off since I was about eight years old. To have that just dropped on you…my brain was itching just to do some exercise that I couldn’t do. It was challenging.”
McClenaghan went under the knife by renowned surgeon Dr Ruth Delaney at the Santry Sports Surgery Clinic in Dublin and his recovery has been successful. As he speaks to Pundit Arena, he’s just finished a “very good session” of routine work so it’s now very much a case of getting back on the horse.
Gymnastics is certainly a niche sport in this country but McClenaghan’s parents made the wise decision to bring their son to a club when he was a child so to channel his energy.
“I was always climbing up on the rooftops, the highest tree that I could possibly find and my Mum and Dad would have liked me to channel that energy so they did bring me to a local gymnastics club. They then referred me to a proper gymnastics club and as soon as I stepped through the doors of the gymnastics club it was like heaven for me.
“There’s a big foam pit so I couldn’t get hurt, there are bars to swing on and it was just the perfect environment for me at that age and still is actually for me now! I still get happy when I walk through those doors.”
One of the biggest aspects of the sport that he loves is “learning skills” – the feeling of learning a new routine or skill and then successfully completing it. Although now he admits that he’s learned pretty much everything there is when it comes to the pommel horse, it’s the “hunger for success” which drives him – the feeling of someone putting a gold medal around his neck – he wants to experience that again.
For much of his gymnastics career, McClenaghan has always stood out but he admits that it wasn’t until he was 16 when he realised that he could compete at the highest level and win medals.
“I never really knew it [elite level] was possible until I was around 16. That was when I started to pull away, especially on the pommel horse, I started to pull away from everybody else in the country. I stood out. I stood out big time, especially on the pommel horse because I was doing skills that the senior level gymnasts couldn’t do at all. That really got me engaged. That really made me believe I could be one of the top guys which I am now.”
Team sports were an option for McClenaghan growing up but he always gravitated back to gymnastics because he was in control.
“I always felt like if I wanted something bad enough, I’m going to do it myself. I’m not going to let anyone else stand in my way or hold me back from that.”
Now, it’s all about the future. The 19-year-old admits he likes to reflect on his success in the days after a particular achievement but it doesn’t take long to plan out the next goal, the next competition, the next medal.
The immediate target is a World Cup event in China in May. This doesn’t provide a chance to clinch qualification for the Tokyo Olympics but after recovering from surgery, the standard of competitors will be good so it provides an excellent opportunity to get back into “competition mode”.
Securing his place at the Olympics will rely heavily on the outcome of the World Championships in Germany in October.
“It’s not the only time I have to qualify but it would be good to get it out of the way and get the job done out there,” McClenaghan says.
His love for the sport comes across from the sheer enthusiasm in which he speaks. He’s passionate about gymnastics and he wants to see it grow. He sees it as a responsibility to motivate the next generation of Irish gymnasts.
“Yeah for sure [I want to grow the sport]. I hope I’m doing this by doing this interview right now. Every step I want to make in gymnastics, I want to reflect on the younger generation. I want them to see what I’m doing and surpass that. I want them to beat all of my achievements that I’ve done in my career and just grow the sport more and more. I’ll be happy if that happens.”
One athlete who has elevated the sport to a higher level in the sporting consciousness is American multi-Olympic and World Championship gold medalist Simone Biles, a “superhuman” according to McClenaghan.
“She’s an incredible human being. Anybody who thinks that she is maybe overrated or gets paid too much, they are completely wrong. She deserves everything that is coming her way because she is superhuman. She is incredible. Even for me, a gymnast, watching her is ridiculous.
“I saw her in World Championships last year and that was the highlight of my trip, seeing Simone Biles. She’s just such an amazing gymnast. I appreciate everything she’s doing for the sport as well, outside of actually doing it, she’s an incredible role model for everybody.”
Role models often breed more role models, for McClenaghan he’s on the right path.
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