Rhys McClenaghan had already perfected the back flip on the trampoline in his parents' back garden in Newtownards before he went to his first gymnastics class at the age of six. By the time he was 11 he was able to do the triple Russian, on one handle, the hardest skill on the pommel horse. But his journey to being Ireland's first world-class gymnast was still in its infancy.
"I always knew I had the potential but I was rough around the edges and wasn't doing the skills very cleanly," says McClenaghan.
After Luke Carson became his coach in 2014, he made him spend six months re-learning all the basics skills. "I did resent it but I knew it had to be done."
Nonetheless, the relationship blossomed. "Straight away I started to excel. It was a no-brainer that Luke was the coach for me. He has got me to where I am today and I'm grateful. Of course, there will always be hard days in the gym when you will be crying your eyes out and your hands will be bleeding so much that you doubt why you are in the sport. But then you just realise how much you really love the sport."
Soon after Carson took over as his coach, he presented the 14-year-old with a 10-year plan for his career culminating in the 2024 Paris Olympics. It's a measure of McClenaghan's self-assurance that he wasn't intimidated by its ambitious targets.
"It was somebody telling me I had the capability to go to the Olympic Games. And here I am today having qualified for the Olympic Games. It is exciting now and it was exciting then."
So far McClenaghan has hit every target in the plan - bar one. He was pencilled in to win a gold medal at the 2015 Youth Olympics but suffered a fall and was eliminated.
"It is difficult for every gymnast to have expectations on their shoulders and then not achieve them. But it is something that does make you stronger. I can tell you for a fact that I was way more motivated coming back from that competition than I was after winning the European or Commonwealth titles. When things don't go your way in a competition you want to work so much harder to make them happen the next time."
Since then his CV is littered with breakthroughs. In 2016 he won the first European medal for Ireland in gymnastics, securing silver on the pommel horse at the European junior championships.
In 2018 he achieved double gold, winning the Commonwealth Games title on the Gold Coast in Australia, when he beat the reigning world and Olympic champion Max Whitlock, and then the European title.
Last October in Stuttgart, at the age of 20, he became the first Irish gymnast to qualify for the Olympic Games and win a World Championship medal (bronze).
The moment he found out he was going to the Tokyo Games was the defining moment in his career. He was back in his hotel room though the qualification competition was still in progress.
"I was sitting on my hotel bed refreshing the page where the scores come in. Qualification depended on how many people made the World Championship finals. As soon as the last score came in that's when I knew I was going to the Olympics.
"My teammate Adam Steele was in the room with me and I gave him a big hug and then I called my mum straight away and burst out crying. I couldn't get one sentence out apart from 'I'm going to the Olympics'. Both mum and I were crying over the phone because it was one of the major moments. Years and years of hard work had paid off."
Tracy McClenaghan is the unsung hero in his story. From the moment she took her second son down to the Leisure Centre in Newtownards at the age of six, she became his chauffeur. "She was never happier than the day I got my driving licence and was able to get my first car when I was 17," he says.
The training load for gymnasts is prodigious. From the age of eight he was spending four hours in the gym every evening and this was extended to six hours during the summer school holidays. The journey to and from the gym could take up to two hours. For years his mother would collect him straight after school and drive him to the gym. When he got home at nine he would eat his dinner, do his homework and go to bed.
He was teased at school but it never bothered him. "Any schoolboy who does something different gets hassled. I didn't get bullied but it was just sly words and I'd just say a sly word back. It's just what boys do and its fine and I never felt the affect of it."
In between winning the gold medals at the Commonwealth Games and the European Championship, McClenaghan spent time training in his parents' back garden after Luke Carson was made redundant.
But the story had a positive ending as Carson and McClenaghan relocated to Dublin. They now share a house provided by Gymnastics Ireland close to the sports campus in Abbottstown, where he trains in the National Gymnastics Training Centre.
"It was the first time I had lived away from home. It was quite an adjustment but I knew I had to do it. It has helped me. It got me used to living away from home and taking on new responsibilities and I'm all for that.
"The facilities in the Sport Ireland complex are just incredible. I went to the National Centre in Tokyo at the start of this year and I can tell you that Sport Ireland is very close to catching up with Japan and that is saying something."
Though "incredibly proud" of securing a bronze medal at the World Championships it was tinged disappointment. "I went there for gold," he admits. "It was the first medal for Ireland and that is an incredible achievement. But something inside me wants more. I want that gold medal."
Gymnasts are judged on the difficulty of their routine and its execution. In the latter category McClenaghan is now the recognised world leader. There are 10 different skills in the routine, each with a designated value depending on their difficulty. Essentially, a routine chosen by the gymnast is a balance between the level of difficulty and the ability to execute it cleanly.
"I could have definitely upped the difficulty of my routine at the World Championships but that could have sacrificed some of my execution scores. I had the highest execution scores at the World Championships but I didn't have the difficulty."
Nonetheless, McClenaghan had the somewhat surreal experience at a banquet at those championships of being told by several people that he had been awarded the wrong coloured medal.
"I can't change the scores that were given to the people above me. I don't like to dwell on it too much. People kept telling me at the banquet that I should have got the top spot. It was difficult because you can't really say anything to them."
As soon as the lockdown was announced McClenaghan headed home to Newtownards and moved his pommel horse from the garage into the garden and trained on his own. At times it was challenging as his coach couldn't be alongside him.
"There were hard days which I tweeted about and put on Instagram. But those are the days you learn most from because if you are able to train and give it your all on those difficult days you can do anything. It taught me a lot about keeping myself motivated without relying on somebody else."
Ultimately it was a more rewarding experience than his previous stint at home when he was rehabbing for almost six months after surgery in late 2018 to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.
Now reunited with Carson and back training at the national centre, his muscles ache when he wakes up these days - but it's a feeling he loves.
"We didn't jump back into six-hour daily training sessions because it would wear out my body and potentially make me injured. We are doing things I hadn't been doing during the lockdown so I'm sore every day. But I love that feeling because I'm getting stronger."
Psychologically he has come to terms with the postponement of the Olympics.
"The date of when pretty much your life goal will be decided is so locked into your head that it's quite a tough mental adjustment when that's changed all of a sudden. So I had to take a little step back from being so focussed on gymnastics."
He has now come to accept that this down period has presented him with a unique opportunity. "The reality is that I'm going to have one more year to get better and that is an exciting thing to have."
His next scheduled competition is not until December, when the European Championships are due to take place in Baku. "Gymnasts love this time to work on a new skill that could potentially upgrade their routine. "
Meanwhile, there is his 21st birthday on July 21 to celebrate. "I could be training all day. Maybe Luke will buy me a birthday cake - a low fat and low sugar one."
There are no short cuts on the way to winning an Olympic gold medal.
Sunday Indo Sport