Engaging in frank confrontation and some gentle trash talk is not something typically associated with artistic gymnastics, only Rhys McClenaghan seems well up for it. Not with any spite or anger whatsoever but simply because it helps bring out the best in him, might help interest some others too.
The pommel horse is his speciality, and when asked about the prospect of another showdown at the upcoming European Championship with Britain's Max Whitlock, who won Olympic gold in 2016 and has 31 championship medals next to his name, McClenaghan replies along similar lines of "bring him on".
Asked about the sort of upper body strength it takes to succeed in his event, compared to the likes of a Conor McGregor or a Caelan Doris for example, McClenaghan points out the fact that he only deals in bodyweight training, where “gymnasts are superior by a long shot” and “I would absolutely love for anybody to challenge gymnasts in terms of bodyweight training.”
After watching the Irish rowers strike gold and silver medals at their European Championships last weekend, he’s also happy to keep raising his own bar for the Tokyo Olympics: “I know I can compete against the Olympic champion, that I can post some of the biggest scores in the world, it would be almost silly not to aim for gold every time.”
It's an exciting rivalry and it's exciting for the sport, knowing two guys are going head-to-head, and my job is to extend that gap as much as possible
McClenaghan hasn’t come this far in his 21 years without such considerable self belief: in 2016, a first ever gymnastics medal for Ireland at the European Junior Championships; gold at the 2018 Commonwealth, aged only 18, and gold again at the European Senior Championships later that year; then another bronze at the 2019 World Championships.
Those European Championships, set for Basel, Switzerland from April 21-25th, will also be their first competition in almost two years, since Whitlock won a third World gold in 2019; whoever emerges on top will inevitably carry over that momentum into those Tokyo Olympics, now just over three months away.
“I’ve always wanted that top spot, and of course he [Max] is the man to beat, the current Olympic champion,” says McClenaghan, who did beat his British rival in two of their three previous meetings. “It’s an exciting rivalry and it’s exciting for the sport, knowing two guys are going head-to-head, and my job is to extend that gap as much as possible, so that I’m more likely to get that gold medal than he is.”
Despite the lack of any competitive gymnastics since 2019, McClenaghan has no doubt the postponed Olympics has allowed him become a stronger and more competitive version of himself, also perfecting a new skill into his routine which he’s “very excited” to showcase in Basel.
Because all his gym work involves bodyweight training – he doesn’t lift weights, never has and never will – McClenaghan was essentially able to train without interruption during the various stages of lockdown, albeit with some compromise: while at home he would get his dad to hold him over the side of the bed to do sit-ups, and he still has the old pommel horse first set up for him out their back garden in Newtownards.
Speaking at the launch of Avonmore’s ‘Bring Your All’ campaign, McClenaghan’s confidence is certainly not mistaken for aloofness, and he’s taking plenty of inspiration from his fellow Tokyo prospects, such as that upper body strength test.
Every time I'm competing my goal is to take that gold medal. That's the routine I'm training for
“A bench press wouldn’t be a great comparison, because I don’t lift weights, everything I do is bodyweight training. I know the canoe slalom are very strong in [their] upper body, I’ve seen some impressive things from the Irish guys there, where they’re doing handstand press-ups, but it’s still incomparable to gymnasts’ upper body strength.”
For Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy, the expectation of an Olympic gold medal has further intensified after the weekend: if that intensity is brought on McClenaghan should he strike European gold he wouldn’t be bothered either way.
“As I said, every time I’m competing my goal is to take that gold medal. That’s the routine I’m training for, one of the most difficult scores in the world up on the pommel horse, as well as maintaining the execution score, so the total score is always going to challenge that top spot, without a doubt.
“It was very inspiring to see the success of the rowers again, the competition was very inspiring, to see more and more Irish athletes come along saying ‘we want to take Olympic gold’. We’ve all talked about in previous years, that hasn’t been the case, whereas I’m sitting beside the women’s hockey team and they’re saying the same thing, ‘we’re going to take gold’.
"Not just say 'hopefully things go well, hopefully we'll get a personal best'. We're all coming out now saying, even Jack Woolley in taekwondo, saying the same thing, going for gold in Tokyo. And that's very inspiring to me. I always feel like I've had that winning mindset, but to see the culture in Ireland, everybody coming out saying they're going for gold, is a very positive thing."