Following the transition from junior to senior competitions, Rhys McClenaghan is hard at training in the hope of qualifying for the gymnastics team at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Rhys, who turns eighteen next month, has put Irish gymnastics on the radar after winning Gold on the pommel horse at the Croatia World Cup earlier this year. We spoke to Rhys about his training regime, how he got into gymnastics and his ongoing journey to Tokyo 2020.
Last month, you created history when winning the Gold medal on the pommel horse at the Croatia World Cup, how did this feel?
Being the first ever Irish gymnast to win a Gold medal on the pommel, and also the youngest ever to win a Gold, shows that gymnastics in Ireland is making a step in the right direction, and Ireland are a force to be reckoned with! I do believe that I can be the best, although even when I win a senior title such as this World Cup, there is still a sense of disbelief in my head. There is no prouder moment than standing at the top of the podium, not only representing my country, but representing my coach Luke (Carson), Gymnastics Ireland, my family, my friends and most importantly representing myself and showing the world who Rhys McClenaghan is.
Following your World Cup win, you were a guest on The Ray D’Arcy Show, can you tell us about this?
I felt that this was needed. I went on the show representing the success of gymnastics in Ireland, and how it must be addressed. I hope that when people see me on TV they see taking up gymnastics as an option. This also makes people aware that gymnastics is moving in the right direction and there are many more results to come in the near future.
What’s it like competing against the likes of Louis Smith and Max Whitlock, who you joined on the podium at the 2016 British Artistic Gymnastics Championships after winning Bronze?
“Train until your idols become your rivals”. This quote describes my situation at the British Championships in 2016. This was the first time that I had competed against senior gymnasts, and to come away winning the Bronze and standing on the podium with my two biggest idols was a dream come true. This year at the British Championships I came back with more confidence than ever and took the Gold! It showed everybody how quickly I was progressing towards being the best.
All of the gymnasts appear to be friends, does this make it more or less competitive when competing against each other?
Gymnastics is a very respectful sport and it would be a very rare sighting to see competitors be enemies in this sport. All gymnasts have huge respect for each other and their gymnastics.
How have you found the experience transitioning from junior to senior level?
Making the transition from junior to senior has been the most difficult stage in my gymnastics career so far. The training intensifies and the stress levels rise. This is when I started to doubt myself, but with the help of Luke and my family, I pushed through the tough times and made this year into the best year of my life.
What’s it like being coached by Luke Carson – who had a great career as a gymnast before being forced to retire through injury?
I knew Luke from when I was a very young gymnast and always looked up to him and analysed all of his techniques as he was the best gymnast in the gym, and I wanted to be just like him. In fact, if you look closely at my gymnastics and Luke’s gymnastics, in some things our technique is very similar. Knowing that Luke has been through all the different stages to become an elite gymnast gives me comfort when he is coaching me, as he was once in my shoes.
Can you tell us about your training regime and how do you prepare for competitions?
I have quite an intense training regime, ranging between 24 to 30 hours per week. This is quite difficult to maintain as I am in full-time education, doing Sports Studies in a local college. Although any time I find that I am free, I would always want to drive to the gym and begin session. Luke always has a year-long planner for me and my individual competitions. This plan prepares me physically and mentally to compete at my top form when the competition is here.
Do you have a favourite and least favourite apparatus?
My favourite apparatus would have to be the pommel horse. I was always very talented on the pommel horse from a very young age and I feel like I understand all the technicalities and motions of the pommel.
I would never have a least favourite apparatus, I feel like some areas need more improvement than others. When I am improving certain areas I enjoy doing this, as I know that I’m getting closer to my goals that I have set myself.
Are there any gymnasts you are particularly inspired by?
I have many inspirations and idols who I look up to in gymnastics. My main inspiration would be the younger gymnasts who are training alongside me in the gym. They may not know it, but they have a huge role in inspiring me to be better at the sport. I get very kind words from them and their parents saying how much I inspire them to become just like me. This in return pushes me to become better and better every day.
How did you get into gymnastics?
Being a very active kid I needed to find ways of channelling this energy I constantly had. My mum and dad had gymnastics in mind because my aunty was a gymnast who competed for the Northern Irish team. My parents put me into a recreational class to start off and I loved every minute of it!
Have you had to make any sacrifices because of your career so far?
Every gymnast will tell you that gymnastics is more of a lifestyle than it is a sport. Training comes first, always. This can be frustrating at times but having a huge amount of love for the sport and having them personal goals that I set myself makes all the sacrifices worth it.
Would you like to do a TV show like Strictly Come Dancing (which fellow gymnasts Louis Smith and Claudia Fragapane have both competed in)?
I would love to do some sort of reality TV show. I feel like it gives people a chance to get to know the person when they aren’t preparing for a major competition or training intensely.
Do you have any competitions coming up that you are currently in preparation for?
World Championships 2017 in Montreal has been the big target competition for this year. It will be my first World Championships, which means that I will gain a huge amount of experience from doing this competition. This will also give me a chance to show off my routines on the world stage and get my name more recognised.
You hope to be a part of the team going to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, how will you prepare for this?
The journey to the 2020 Olympics has already begun. I must prove to many people that I should be attending the Olympic Games and not only go there to take part but to get results. Results that will change the image of gymnastics in Ireland completely.
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