Sky’s the limit for high-flying Rhys McClenaghan in Tokyo

Belfast gymnast makes no secret of his medal ambitions at next year’s Games


He shakes hands with everyone in the room. That’s 59 kilos of champion grip, a little lighter than Katie Taylor’s 60kg, significantly heavier than Paddy Barnes’s 49kg. The way he is cut and muscled, Rhys Mc Clenaghan, European champion, could be a boxer.

“I’ve always had that fighter’s mentality,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to go out and not just participate in competitions.”

He might be in the lightweight division of body size. But McClenaghan is a heavy hitter in gymnastics, one of the best in the world. Bracingly certain in his ambition, he will tell you that himself.

‘Hoor ya do’in,’ he says in a Belfast accent. He won the first European Championships medal in history for Ireland with silver on the pommel horse at the 2016 Junior European Championships.

At the 2018 Commonwealth Games the 18-year-old won gold, beating the reigning world and Olympic champion Max Whitlock with a higher execution score. At the 2018 European Championships gold again.  Another Irish first.

The Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020 and he sees no reason to change his outlook on what colour of medal to target. It’s not bravado. It’s not bluster. It’s not a wannabe gymnast attempting to talk up a bigger game than he has in his locker. It’s also not very Irish.

Track record

 “I’m not delusional,” he says. “I understand if you put a little lower expectation on yourself you are going to exceed it a little bit easier. I know and other gymnasts know, I’ve got some of the best scores in the world and I can finish on that podium.

“Yes for sure, I’m one of the best in the world on this apparatus. I’m saying this with huge confidence that myself and other gymnasts know that I am up there with the best in the world.

“In my brain I’m thinking I can’t control anyone else’s performance but I’m stating the facts that there is a strong possibility that I can go out there and take the gold medal. I don’t know if I am going to win this competition. But I do believe I can. That’s the difference.”

He is unencumbered with false modesty for good reason. The track record and the bettering of the Olympic champion Whitlock draws him into territory where he needs to believe in what he can do. There is a point where ability constantly places you in leading edge positions.

It’s pointless to pretend otherwise and disabling to constantly talk it down. The 19-year-old has doubled down on his ability and in his segue back to competition, more demands are being made of his body.

Not unlike what Nick Faldo did with his golf swing Mc Clenaghan is rebuilding technique and chasing perfection. Surgery on a torn shoulder (Labrum) forced his hand. On his way back he and his coach took the bigger thinking decision to reconstruct technique and chase harder won points.

“My goals for this year is to put out world record scores and that is very doable,” he says.“It is a very high execution routine we’re going to put out there. We’ve been working very, very hard since shoulder surgery. I had to start from basic things like the basic circle. We said why not recreate that.

“You will hopefully see that my circle shape (a spin movement on top of the horse) is much more extended, even slightly arched at the front and at the back. That’s something that you very rarely see a gymnast doing.”

Toughest moves

In that he is chasing percentages. Mc Clenaghan’s team are also examining how judges score routines. Again he is good enough to execute the toughest moves but the marks come when he understands the way the judges prefer him to do it, not the way he thinks it should be done.

He has a World Cup event in May, the Irish Championships and then another World Cup event in Slovenia. But the World Championships in October will tell him how the shoulder ranks and if the ‘Major’ next year is a reality or not.

“Execution in gymnastics now is very important,” he says. “You need to zone in on the judge’s brain as well. That’s why I video my routines a lot and try and see where the deductions are, thinking from a judge’s perspective.

“There’s no point doing a difficult skill with bent leg. If the skill is worth .4 and you are getting deducted .5 what’s the point?”

He lives with his long-time coach Luke Carson in a house 10 minutes from the Gymnastics Ireland base in the Sport Ireland Institute. It was set up for him by the federation. Monday to Friday are in Dublin and weekends are with his family in Newtownards.

“We are going for perfection,” he says without doubt. Front certainly. Call it what you want.

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