Rhys McClenaghan: NI gymnast set to renew rivalry with Max Whitlock

Rhys McClenaghan
Rhys McClenaghan took Northern Ireland's only gold medal of the Commonwealth Games in Australia in April

Commonwealth champion Rhys McClenaghan is preparing to renew his rivalry with England's Max Whitlock at next week's European Championships in Glasgow.

The Northern Ireland gymnast saw off Whitlock to strike gold in the pommel horse category at Gold Coast in April.

McClenaghan has certainly shouted his challenge from the rooftops, pinning a tweet after Australia in which he warned Whitlock he is "coming for that world title next, Max".

"It's exciting to have that rivalry."

Two months after winning his gold medal McClenaghan found himself having to train in his mother's back garden after being effectively forced out of his Northern Ireland gym.

It was hardly the kind of homecoming the then 18-year-old expected after his historic triumph on the pommel apparatus which had for so long been the sole preserve of his double Olympic champion rival.

But defiant McClenaghan soon struck a deal to shift training to the national high-performance centre in Dublin, and his move paid off when he grabbed his second career World Cup gold in Turkey at the start of last month.

Next week the Newtownards native will get the chance to prove his Commonwealth victory over Whitlock was no fluke when the pair go head to head again in Scotland.

"The situation took a bit of a physical toll because I wasn't able to train to my full potential, but it didn't affect me mentally one bit," said McClenaghan.

"It came completely out of the blue one day but I decided I was not going to let those people get me down and keep me back. It's all about staying positive in these situations and that helps to build your character even more."

Max Whitlock was a double Olympic gold medallist in Rio in 2016
Max Whitlock was a double Olympic gold medallist in Rio in 2016

Tokyo 2020 medal hope

McClenaghan felt his move was forced from the gym where he had trained in since he was a child after coach Luke Carson had his contract to coach at the club cancelled with immediate effect.

Under the guidance of Carson, a close friend of another Whitlock rival Louis Smith, McClenaghan has emerged not only as his nation's leading gymnast but an emerging medal hope for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

And while his superb win over Whitlock on the Gold Coast proved a major career milestone, McClenaghan has had belief in his ability to rank among the best since his podium finish at the 2016 British Championships.

"I was standing on the podium behind Max and Louis and it felt like I'd really arrived in the senior category. Gold Coast was the next big step," recalled the Northern Irishman,

He could yet find himself adding Smith to his list of rivals with the four-time Olympic medallist believed to be considering a return to the sport with a view to adding his collection in Tokyo.

But for now McClenaghan insists he is happy to pick the brains of Smith, who broke new ground for British men's gymnastics when he won his first of three consecutive pommel medals in Beijing in 2008.

"Since Luke started coaching me I've always had the opportunity to speak to Louis and I've learned a lot from him.

"He knows everything about the sport and he's such a friendly guy, I can sit for hours and talk about different strategies and things I can bring into play. Louis is such a big role model for me."