Tokyo 2020: Rhys McClenaghan shows that embracing the pain is better than denying it

22-year-old gymnast strikes confident note for future after fall in pommel horse final

There is no one look of loss on the face of an Olympic medal hope. They all look on it differently, some torn between shock and surprise, others between anger and regret.

We saw six fresh faces of loss here in Tokyo throughout Sunday and all of them were Irish, some lasting longer than others. Day nine and what felt like the longest day of competition had also been billed as the potentially Super Sunday for Irish medal hopes, the sort of the thing the Olympics like to play little tricks on, to remind us hope and eventuality are two different things.

It began early down at the Kokugikan Arena, where boxer Kurt Walker lost his featherweight quarter-final to the American Duke Ragan on a split decision. A win here would have guaranteed Walker bronze, his look of loss partly explained by the fact Ragan is now coached by Billy Walsh, the former Irish coach who first nurtured Walker's Olympic hopes back in 2012.

Soon after that Aidan Walsh was due to fight in his welterweight semi-final, only he withdrew earlier in the morning, due to the ankle injury sustained while jumping for joy after his quarter-final win on Friday, which at least guaranteed him a bronze medal already. Still Walsh lost his chance to potentially fight for gold, and may look back on that with some regret.


Later in the afternoon up at the at Kasumigaseki Country Club, Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry went into the final round of the golf with every hope and chance of a medal – McIlroy coming agonisingly close to bronze (don't they all look like that?) before losing out in the seven-man playoff. He looked properly disappointed, but can look forward to better days.

In the evening down at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre and then the Olympic Stadium we saw two more – Rhys McClenaghan missing out on a medal in his first Olympic gymnastics final, before Thomas Barr missed out on the final of the 400m hurdles by just one place, and with that losing his chance to improve on his fourth place in Rio in 2016.

In truth it was the look on McClenaghan’s face that caught us most off guard. Just turned 22, the first ever Irish finalist in 125 years of Olympic gymnastics history, the youngest of the competitors who had in and around 50 seconds to make their mark in the men’s pommel horse final.

Eight finalists, McClenaghan going next to last, which meant looking on as those ahead performed some excellent routines, none more that Britain's Max Whitlock, the 28-year-old up first and ending up defending his Olympic title with a magnificent score of 15.583.

When he stepped up McClenaghan looked composed, only for his routine to soon let him down when he wanted it most, as he lost control of the handles after just 10 seconds, and fell chest-first on to the horse. He scored 13.200 and ended up seventh; had he repeated his qualifying score of last weekend he would have won bronze.

Only the look McClenaghan gave us in the near immediate aftermath wasn’t of a young Olympian whose medal hopes had just been crushed, or indeed any lasting look of missed opportunity. He looked suitably disappointed all right, yet defiant too, more resolute than any of us expected, as if embracing the pain of the loss rather than deny it.

“No, it didn’t affect me at all, I didn’t even know that,” he said when asked if his still tender youth was a factor. “It means nothing. It just happens, and I’m sad that it happens on the Olympic stage but it certainly not the last time I will be on the Olympic stage.

“People like to toss in so many different factors, like ‘there’s too much pressure on him because he is the youngest gymnast in the final, that’s why he fell’. It’s not like that at all. It’s just about doing a routine and I know that.

“My finger just got caught under the handle and it’s the finest of margins in this sport unfortunately. That’s what makes the sport so exciting as well, that’s why when you go into an Olympic final everyone says anything can happen.

“It’s such a silly mistake but I know I’ll come back even stronger from this. With disappointment comes a huge amount of motivation and hunger for more success. It’s a very early chapter in my gymnastics career. I’m the first Irish gymnast to be an Olympic finalist, I’ve broken down that barrier, the next Olympics I want a medal around my neck.

“It’s disappointing but I want to feel this disappointment. Because I know how much motivation and hunger comes from that disappointment. I almost didn’t think I could work any harder in the lead-up to this, and I don’t think I could have. Now I feel like I’ll surpass that work ethic and bring it down to even finer margins and improve those as well.”

This look coming from experience too, McClenaghan already the first Irish gymnast to win a senior medal at any event, at the 2018 European Championships, before winning World bronze in 2019.

“If I was to think of the mindset of every other Irish gymnast, I’d be at national level. I’m not thinking of that, I’m thinking of being the greatest of all time. I didn’t show that today but I’m hoping for the future that’ll be the case.”

I have grown up on this island [Ireland]. I haven’t bounced across from a different country or anything. It just shows that every gymnast on this island what’s possible if the put hard work and dedication into their craft and fall in love with this sport like I have.”

Which is perhaps why someday McClenaghan will look back on Sunday in Tokyo as the making of a future Olympic champion.