Rhys McCleneghan’s winning strategy: keep falling off the horse

Irish gymnast says there’s no success without failure as he heads for Worlds

Rhys McCleneghan: ‘I don’t want to go to these competitions to participate, I want to come back with a medal around my neck and make it a gold one.’ Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Rhys McCleneghan: ‘I don’t want to go to these competitions to participate, I want to come back with a medal around my neck and make it a gold one.’ Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Seeing the finished work, it’s hard to picture how many times he has failed along the way.

Rhys McClenaghan hoists himself up on the pommel horse and starts to swivel, his legs swinging around it in a wide circle that requires unfathomable core and upper-body strength, his hands delicately shifting positions beneath his torso.

It’s Friday morning in Abbotstown, and one of Ireland’s best sportsmen is perfecting his routine – over and over and over again.

The 20-year-old from Newtownards is the reigning European and Commonwealth champion at this event, one of Ireland’s best medal chances for next year’s Olympics, but if one thing stands out from watching him train, it’s not how often he gets it right. It’s how often he gets it wrong.

He aborts as many routines as he completes, puffing his cheeks and climbing down from the pommel after one slight error, standing with coach Luke Carson and watching what went wrong on a nearby TV, which plays his routine back on a 60-second delay. Then he goes again – and again.

“I’ve fallen off the pommel horse hundreds of thousands of times, there isn’t going to be any success without failures,” he says. “I make sure I’m not getting too wound up. I’m very optimistic and when I fail I see a positive, a learning curve. That’s how you’re going to get to perfection.”

Target on the horizon

That’s what he wants, the target on the horizon that he’s forever chasing.

“I don’t think there ever is a perfect routine,” he says. “Even if I do a perfect routine executionally, I know I need to add the next skill to make it more difficult. It’s always going to be improving.”

A gymnast’s total score in the pommel horse is the sum of a routine’s difficulty score and its execution score, so success hinges on a calculated risk. McClenaghan is not afraid to admit that he’s aiming high – very high – at the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships, which got under way in Stuttgart on Friday.

I wanted to make the judging world, the gymnastics world, aware of what I can do

He will take to the pommel on Sunday in qualification, while Irish team-mate Adam Steele, the 22-year-old who is back in action after surgery on his hand, will compete on all six apparatus.

If all goes well for McClenaghan, he should book his place in the pommel horse final next weekend. His goal is simple, and can be summarised by a quote that he and Carson have on the wall at the National Gymnastics Training Centre: be undeniable.

In recent weeks McClenaghan took the unusual step of posting a video of his routine to social media.

“I wanted to make the judging world, the gymnastics world, aware of what I can do and to be prepared for me at World Championships,” he says. “I wanted them to compare me to the other gymnasts because I know my execution is so much better. I want that to be the standard.”

Parabolic cyst

Heading into last year’s World Championships in Doha, he and Carson believed gold could be on the cards until McClenaghan’s health failed him, a parabolic cyst growing on a nerve and preventing him from externally rotating his shoulder – essentially handcuffing his arms during his routine.

“He absolutely could have been world champion last year, so it’s frustrating, but it’s also fuelled his fire for this time,” says Carson. “He’s healthy, fired up and ready to go.”

McClenaghan underwent shoulder surgery last November and the journey back has meant many hours of painstaking rehab, but he never lost faith. “I knew with every strength in my bones I was going to come back and make a name for myself, take gold medals for my country.”

In recent months he’s been working on a new routine that he will debut next week.

“We studied the greatest pommel workers of all time and we’ve tried to replicate that,” says McClenaghan.

He returned to action with a bang earlier this year, winning World Cup silver in China and World Cup gold in Slovenia, the latter with a personal best score. Those performances earned him victory in the FIG World Challenge Cup Series and make him a marked man at this year’s World Championships.

It’s one of my main goals, to preach to everyone how great gymnastics is

He’s coming up against some of the greats of his event and, while McClenaghan respects all of them, he fears no one.

“I feel if I can go out there and do my job the way I’ve done it hundreds of times in training, I don’t think there’ll be a problem. It’ll be difficult but even if I don’t do that perfect routine, it should be enough for a gold medal.”

Growing the sport

Victory would secure him qualification for next year’s Olympic Games, and McClenaghan knows how much of an impact such a feat could have on growing the sport in Ireland.

“It’s one of my main goals, to preach to everyone how great gymnastics is. I don’t want people to think you have to pursue an elite pathway. Participation is growing and I want to encourage that because it’s a great way to keep your mind and body healthy.”

At his level, there’s no denying it can sometimes be a struggle. Shortly after our interview McClenaghan high-tailed it to the Sport Ireland Institute for an appointment with his sports psychologist, Ella McCabe.

“It’s very helpful,” he says. “The training routine we have, it’s a very tough world and things can catch up on you, so being in a positive place is always the first step. You can get too tied up in your training, and the goal is to live a happy life, at the end of the day. At the moment I’m doing it.”

And if things go according to plan over the next week, it’ll be all the happier when he returns from Stuttgart.

“I’m not in denial, this is me speaking facts: I know with the scores I’m getting I can go out there and be world champion, Olympic champion. I don’t want to go to these competitions to participate, I want to come back with a medal around my neck and make it a gold one.”

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