Rhys McClenaghan: ‘This gold medal doesn’t fix me, it doesn’t make me a happy person’

The 24-year-old back-to-back world champion on overcoming mental challenges on the path to success

When Rhys McClenaghan opens up about his fear of failure, is brutally honest about the panic attacks and not wanting to compete for the first time in his career, he takes some comfort in the knowledge he’s not alone.

Not just in a sport as unforgiving as gymnastics, where anything can and often does go wrong. He recognises these same mental insecurities can also be part of the stresses and challenges of everyday life.

It’s just over a week since McClenaghan defended his World Championship title on the pommel horse – considered the most testing men’s apparatus of all six – producing a devastatingly good routine in Antwerp that also sealed his Olympic qualification for next summer. Mentally and physically untouchable.

Just three weeks before that, at the Paris World Cup, McClenaghan finished second behind Britain’s Max Whitlock, the three-time Olympic champion. Still successful to outside observers perhaps, only inside McClenaghan’s confidence was shot and, worse still, so was his simple enjoyment of the sport.


“With sport at a high level, with anything at a high level, there does come that mental pressure,” McClenaghan says of his build-up to Antwerp. “And it’s not so much pressure from anybody outside the sport that I feel it, it’s from myself.

“It was a very difficult build-up to the competition, and it was difficult more on my mind. My body was completely healthy, I was completely physically ready, but my mind wasn’t quite happy, if I’m honest.

“I had the Paris World Cup a few weeks before the World Championships and I really felt all those emotions bottling up in those finals. Even in the warm-up before my routine on competition day I was more nervous than I had ever been before and quite honestly had a bit of a panic attack before I competed.

“So it was a very strange feeling, a feeling that I had never had before. Myself and Luke [Carson, his coach] talked about it, coming away from that and said ‘just forget about the result’. We wanted to fix my mind first and foremost and that was my focus every single day.”

As defending world champion, that Olympic spot also at stake, the 24-year-old from Newtownards perhaps felt pressure unlike before. Either way, the time to deal with it was now.

“When I woke up every morning, I asked myself how I was feeling, I was checking in on myself mentally more than anything. We knew changes were to be made, so I went off social media altogether, eliminated any of these distractions that might have been contributing to me not being mentally well.

“And we knew that if I was to get myself mentally well, then the performances would follow. So I feel like that’s a positive thing. There’s still work to be done, this gold medal doesn’t fix me, it doesn’t make me a happy person overall, but it certainly helps that I understand that there’s work to be done in my mind.”

In Antwerp, he was last up in the eight-man final, which can be a blessing and a curse, only by then McClenaghan was in a realm of his own. There was pressure all around, the gold and silver medal winners from Tokyo, Whitlock and Lee Chih Kai from Chinese Taipei, both falling in their earlier routines. McClenaghan didn’t need or want to know.

Antwerp, incidentally, was Whitlock’s first major championship since Tokyo, the 30-year-old, and Britain’s most successful gymnast, taking a two-year break due to his own mental health issues.

“People look at me and think that I would never have felt that way after winning Olympic gold, but I did,” he said last week. “I felt like a waste of space and a failure in that time away from the sport and to get that message across to young children, if they ever feel that way at some point in their lives, they can know that it’s okay.”

Also competing in Antwerp after an extended break for mental health reasons was Simone Biles, the 26-year-old American who extended her medal winning tally to 37, between the Olympics and World Championships – more than any other female, or male, gymnast in history.

McClenaghan recaps his Antwerp experience in his video blog, calling it “my biggest challenge yet”.

Less than 10 months away from the Olympics, he firmly believes his latest gold medal – his seventh in all on the major stage – has properly tempered his confidence.

“I think many athletes would agree it’s probably more difficult to retain a title than it is to get it in the first place. Because you’ve got a target on your back. There’s a lot of thinking yet to be done but I like to be honest and open with my thoughts with my psychologist Jessie Barr. And that was one of the things that came up a week before we left for the World Championships.

“Although sometimes you don’t want to be diving too deep into those thoughts, and picking apart your mind before a big championship, it felt like it was now or never. I know now that it’s a bad thing to bottle up too much, it’s not something I want to do again.

“It was an interesting one and a learning curve, to see how my brain works, I could still compete when I didn’t want to compete. But when I was at the World Championships I wanted to be there, I enjoyed my time there and certainly wanted to compete there.”

Rhys McClenaghan is an ambassador for Team Ireland sponsor Permanent TSB