Relishing it seemed all pressure or expectation, Rhys McClenaghan has once again gone where no Irish gymnast has before, winning the gold medal with his magnificent performance in the pommel horse final at the World Championships in Liverpool.
With a World championship bronze already to his name from 2019, McClenaghan now becomes Ireland’s first ever global gold medal winner in the sport, also adding to his previous gold medal wins in the pommel horse at the European Championships and Commonwealth Games back in 2018.
Up third of the eight finalists, McClenaghan delivered the perfectly executed routine loaded with difficultly, scoring 15.300 – with 6.400 for difficulty and 8.900 for execution.
In the end that left him well clear of second-placed Ahmad Abu Al Soud, who won a first medal for Jordan with his score of 14.886.
So another first for McClenaghan, a first gymnastics World champion from Ireland.
“It sounds great, it sounds so good,” McClenaghan told the BBC. “It’s all been worthwhile. This sport I’ve dedicated my life to, it’s been worthwhile for this day right here and this moment.
“So much work has went in by myself, by Luke [Carson, McClenaghan’s coach], it’s been a long time coming in my eyes. I can’t believe the day has finally come.”
Indeed on the day McClenaghan was in that class of his own, the 23-year-old from Newtownards dazzling in the speed of hand-work across the horse, wrapped up in the perfect dismount. Showing complete focus and control throughout, he never once lost momentum over the course of his 45-second routine, raising both arms after his dismount, as well he might, a release of relief perhaps as much as anything else.
The bronze medal went to Harutyun Merdinyan from Armenia, last to go and finishing with a score of 14.733, at age 38 also the oldest medal winner in World championship history, with defending champion Stephen Nedoroscik from the USA only managing fifth with a score of 14.400.
It’s a fifth championship medal in all for McClenaghan, having also won silver at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in August. That was followed by the setback of not making the final at the European Championships in Munich, only on this occasion he showed zero doubt in his own ability.
He was the top qualifier earlier in the week with his score of 15.233 – his 15.300 better again and unquestionably the finest routine of his career.
McClenaghan had also gone to last year’s Tokyo Olympics with high hopes of a medal, only to slip up twice in his final routine, and he finished up seventh.
That gold medal went to Britain’s Max Whitlock, not competing in Liverpool however. It was Whitlock who McClenaghan beat when he won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in Australia in thrilling circumstances, beating the English gymnast by virtue of his higher execution score after both athletes finished level in the final.
McClenaghan then backed up that performance by winning the European Championships in Glasgow a few weeks later, before winning a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships in Stuttgart.
McClenaghan’s preparations for the Commonwealth Games this summer weren’t ideal either after he had been originally told he wouldn’t be able to defend his Commonwealth title after the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) ruled the Northern Ireland team couldn’t compete because previous performances for Ireland at World and European level.
It resulted in a series of protests, Commonwealth Games Northern Ireland accusing the FIG of having “completely disregarded” for the Good Friday Agreement with its actions, and they eventually relented last month.
Now, less than two years out from the Paris Olympics, McClenaghan has proved himself to be the very best in the world, handling all pressure or expectation to boot.
“I’m not even thinking about 10 years’ time. I’m not even thinking about tomorrow,” he added.
“I am just thinking about this moment right here, the moment I became world champion. I’m so happy this competition is over now. It has been such a long year. It has been non-stop competitions and I have lived such a dedicated lifestyle in the lead-up to this moment.
“Now I can relax a bit. I have such relief going through my body and mind right now.”