Sunday 20 October 2019

McClenaghan: The facts say that I can win Olympic gold

Rhys McClenaghan says he’s back on the pommel horse having suffered injury at last October’s World Championships. Photo: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Rhys McClenaghan says he’s back on the pommel horse having suffered injury at last October’s World Championships. Photo: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Cathal Dennehy

Reticence would be an easy out, a way to swing to safety amid the rising storm of expectation.

Fifteen months out from the Tokyo Olympics, Rhys McClenaghan could reach for the suitcase of sporting cliches and offer some pointless platitudes: hoping for the best; I'll give it my all; won't underestimate the challenge - you know the ones.

But champions, he knows, feel the fear of failure - that potent force of external pressure - and do it anyway. A medal in Tokyo: why not?

"I'm not delusional," he says. "I understand that if you put lower expectations on yourself that you're going to exceed them easier, but sport is not easy. I know, and other gymnasts know, that I have some of the best scores in the world and I can finish on that podium."

It's tempting to attribute such boldness to the temerity of youth, but the 19-year-old's hypothesis stands up to scrutiny - enhanced, if anything, by peer-review.

"If they beat me that's fair enough," he says. "But I'm stating the facts that there's a strong possibility I can go out and take a gold medal."

As baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean once said, months before leading the St Louis Cardinals to the 1934 World Series: "It ain't bragging if you can back it up."

McClenaghan's belief is borne not of braggadocio, but results - objective numbers chalked down by judges who measure, in their own subjective way, his undeniable brilliance.

Half the country got a crash course in gymnastics last year when the Newtownards teenager struck gold at the European Championships in Glasgow.

His event, the pommel horse, is defined by swings and circles, shapes and angles, the results based on the sum score of both the difficulty and execution of a gymnast's routine.

McClenaghan was the youngest competitor in that European final, with Olympic champion Max Whitlock of Britain among his rivals, but the Down teenager delivered a master class, ranking best in both difficulty and execution to add the European crown to the Commonwealth title he won last April.

In a way it changed everything. But it also changed nothing.


He gets recognised all the time now, especially in Newtownards. "That means the most to me - I know they're supporting me," he says. "But I don't think anything inside my head has changed. I've always had that fighter's mentality where I want to go out there, do my best and get some medals."

The good times didn't last. They never do. In October McClenaghan went to the World Championships in Doha with a shoulder injury and fell off the pommel midway through his routine.

Six months on, he locks out his arm to demonstrate the lack of mobility at the time, his fist stopping once it reaches shoulder height. He knew at the time he was cascading up the creek sans paddle, but still he gave it a go.

"I wasn't doing the skills the correct way because of the shoulder and it crumbled," he says. "It was very disappointing."

The diagnosis was a labral tear in his shoulder, which caused fluid to leak out from the joint and harden into a cyst. That in turn impinged on the nerves, which left his muscles unable to bear the severe loads required in his routine.

In November McClenaghan went under the knife at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry to repair the torn labrum and because of the damage to nerve function, his rehab was prolonged. But now, at last, he's "pretty much back to full fitness".

During the humdrum months of recovery, his focus was not just to get back to his best - he wanted to be better.

McClenaghan used the time away to break down and rebuild his circle - the one where his feet draw out as he swings around the pommel - and aimed to master a body position that few gymnasts are able to emulate.

"We're going for perfection," he says. "My goal for this year is to put out world-record scores and that's very doable."

These days, the bulk of his training is done at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown, where he re-located last summer after his coach, Luke Carson, was made redundant from the Rathgael Gym in Bangor.

Gymnastics Ireland sorted a house for McClenaghan and Carson just five minutes from Abbotstown, where they utilise every resource at the Sport Ireland Institute - from nutritionists to sport psychologists. "Any little one per cent will help," he says.

In the evenings, McClenaghan and Carson pore over footage of his routine. "You need to think in the judge's brain," he says. "The skills can up my difficulty (score) but they need to be executed correctly. If a skill is worth .4 and you're getting deducted .5, what is the point? It's a fine balance."

The past few years have taught him the vast chasm between executing his routine in an empty gym and under the glare of thousands of fans. All kinds of thoughts flood his mind before competing, some more helpful than others.

"When I go to a competition and think 'I can win this', I see the thought but I don't let it overwhelm me," he says. "I've got a routine to do to the best of my ability. I don't care if someone jumps up on the pommel and dances in front of me - I will not let my concentration fly."

He'll be back out there soon, a World Cup in China next month offering the chance to "get all the cobwebs brushed off". After that he'll go to the Irish nationals, then there's a World Cup in Slovenia and before long, October's World Championships in Stuttgart will be looming into view.

A top-three finish there will ensure his place in Tokyo, and then he can start dreaming - or better still, believing.

"I'm not saying I'm definitely going to win because I don't know," he says. "But I do believe I can. I know I can."

Irish Independent

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