Rhys McClenaghan can go on to become Olympic golden boy

The Irish gymnast was the country’s best kept secret until the weekend in Glasgow

Ireland’s Rhys McClenaghan with his gold medal at the European Championships in Glasgow. Photo: Neil Hall/Inpho

Ireland’s Rhys McClenaghan with his gold medal at the European Championships in Glasgow. Photo: Neil Hall/Inpho

 

Gymnastics Ireland are more than pleased. In one of the most popular sports at the summer Olympic Games, Ireland has minted a golden boy, who a week ago was the country’s best kept secret. A European gold medal for horsing around. It is every boy’s dream.

But the European champion from Belfast, Rhys McClenaghan, is a serious athlete and Ireland probably should have woken up to the 19-year-old long before winning the gold medal for Northern Ireland in the men’s pommel at the Commonwealth Games in April.

With England’s Max Whitlock, the reigning Olympic champion, pushed into the background at the Australian event and again in Glasgow, McClenaghan, a first Irish Gymnastics European champion, has now emerged as a leading player in the race for gold in Tokyo.

The Olympic qualification process has yet to begin but his Glasgow score of 15.300 was the highest posted in his strongest discipline, the pommel, in the world this year.

McClenaghan broke his own record last Thursday in the championships qualification when he scored higher than he did in the Commonwealth Games and then broke it for a second time in the final.

Now resident in Dublin, the teenager moved from his home in Belfast about a month ago to train in the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown. He lives within 15 minutes of the centre with his long time coach and mentor the former British gymnast Luke Carson, who has also moved from Belfast.

“Rhys was originally a kid with a great sense of adventure and stamina and he was very active. His mum was looking for a sport to channel all of this energy into,” said a Gymnastics Ireland official.

Finished with school in Belfast’s Regent House, McClenaghan is now a fulltime athlete and trains every day. His family remain in Newtownards as he puts in 35 hours a week and looks towards the World Championships later this year and the complex process for inclusion in Tokyo.

“Our first senior European gymnastics champion, it really is a spectacular achievement and will only serve as inspiration for the next generation of gymnasts and gymnastics fans at home in Ireland and sets him up well for the upcoming World Championships in October,” said CEO of Gymnastics Ireland, Ciaran Gallagher.

Two years ago as a 16-year-old competing in the U18 Junior European Championships in Switzerland, he 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.

“I’ve seen what the top boys in the world are doing and this kid has everything he needs to become an Olympic champion, I have no doubt in my head,” said Carson then gazing into his crystal ball. “I truly believe he can become an Olympic champion in the future.”

McClenaghan’s European gold medal could not have been better timed for everyone. In June of this year coach Carson was made redundant by the Rathgael Gym in Bangor, where the pair had been based since Carson’s appointment as an elite performance manager in 2014.

The gym said it has faced “significant financial challenges” and confirmed it had made Carson’s position redundant.

It was at that point Sport Ireland stepped in and offered the burgeoning talent support and facilities to train in Dublin.

“We have facilitated a house for a team so he is living there with his coach,” said a gymnastics Ireland official. “The best equipment is there and all have FIG (Federation of International Gymnastics) standards in all the apparatus.”

A dream start in Dublin. No longer the secret.

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