Another first for Rhys McClenaghan. He seems to specialise in them.
When, as a teenager, McClenaghan won a first gold medal for Ireland in the very long history of gymnastics he promised us it was only the beginning. So, at a packed Bank Arena in Liverpool on Saturday afternoon, he delivered again, winning a first global medal for the country with his breathtakingly magnificent performance in the pommel horse final at the 2022 World Championships. First among equals.
And the first of many more, perhaps. Few sporting disciplines anywhere demand such high levels of physicality and technicality, that perfect execution and absolute strength of mind, each pressed evenly against the other. And, while seemingly relishing any pressure or expectation, McClenaghan again went where no Irish gymnast has gone before.
With a world championship bronze already to his name from 2019, it’s his fifth championship medal in all, adding to his previous gold medal wins in the pommel horse at the European Championships and Commonwealth Games back in 2018, aged just 19.
“This sport I’ve dedicated my life to, it’s been worthwhile for this day right here and this moment,” McClenaghan said of his hour of glory, the now 23-year-old from Newtownards in Co Down unquestionably on the absolute top of his game. “So much work has went in by myself, by Luke [Carson, his coach], it’s been a long time coming in my eyes. I can’t believe the day has finally come.”
Indeed it was Carson, a former British gymnast, who first took the then 15-year-old McClenaghan under his wing. “The plan came together with precision,” Carson said. “I have known Rhys could be a world champion since 2014 – today was that day. I am very proud to be part of this monumental moment in Irish sport.”
McClenaghan repaid the compliment. “If it was anybody else, I wouldn’t be here. We had to be the outliers to achieve greatness. People dismissed our ambition and even stood in our way, but we rose above it every time until we were on top.”
Up third of the eight finalists, McClenaghan delivered the outstanding routine, scoring 15.300 – with 6.400 for difficulty and 8.900 for execution. 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.
On the day McClenaghan was in a class of his own, dazzling in the speed of hand-work across the horse, with a series of triple Russians to die for. Showing complete focus and control throughout, he never once lost momentum over the course of his 45-second routine, raising both arms after a brilliantly executed double-turn on his dismount, 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 fifth with a score of 14.400.
Where did it all begin? In 2016, as a 16-year-old competing in the under-18 Junior European Championships in Switzerland, McClenaghan scooped a silver medal in the pommel and finished 13th in the all-round competition. That came after sitting his GCSE exams, by special arrangement, in the British embassy in Bern.
Word was out the kid was good. Last year McClenaghan went to the Tokyo Olympics with self-declared high hopes of a medal, the first Irish gymnast to make a final, only to slip up twice in his routine. He finished up seventh, losing control of the handles after just 10 seconds, falling chest-first on to the horse.
Afterwards he was defiant, vowing the experience would stand to him as he turns towards the Paris games now less than two years away: “That’s sport, but I’ll be walking away from this a more dangerous man, a more dangerous man than ever before, because with disappointment comes an incredible amount of motivation and inspiration.”
Now he’s proven himself the best in the world, and Paris can’t come quick enough.
“I’m not even thinking about 10 years’ time. I’m not even thinking about tomorrow. I am just thinking about this moment right here, the moment I became world champion. 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.
“I know I can perform under this immense pressure, and I can do the same in Paris. I’ve learned from all the mistakes I had and put them all into this routine.”
Another first among the multitudes.