Tokyo 2020: How 'kid in a giant playground' Rhys McClenaghan made it to Tokyo

By Michael MorrowBBC Sport NI
Tokyo Olympics: Men's pommel horse final
Venue: Ariake Gymnastics Centre Date: Sunday, 1 August Starts: 10:41 BST
Coverage: Watch live on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer, BBC Red Button and online; live text and video clips on BBC Sport website and app.

Rhys McClenaghan's first great gymnastic success came at the age of six, when he had no idea that anything at all was on the line.

Having mastered the backflip on the trampoline at his family home, his parents took him to the local gym where his organic interest in the sport could be channelled.

At the door they were met with news of a two-year waiting list. There was, so was the subtext, little point in putting his name down.

While the grown-ups were talking, Rhys set about doing what he loved to do in his own world. A cartwheel, perfect in form, caught the eye of an instructor. In five seconds, the two-year waiting list elapsed and a space opened up with immediate effect.

A natural affinity with his sport has been there from day one. It does not replace hard work and it can't compete with discipline but it makes both immeasurably easier.

Sixteen years on from first setting foot in a gym, the love of the sport is the one recognisable constant for the Commonwealth and European gold medallist, who is a firm medal contender in Sunday's Olympic pommel horse final.

"He enjoys it now as much as he ever did; I think that's the key to it all," says his mother Tracy.

"I don't think he could do it otherwise. It's 30 hours a week that he's in the gym and I don't know that you could do that unless you absolutely love what you're doing."

Rhys McClenaghan
McClenaghan was 16 when he won bronze at the British Championships

McClenaghan's breakthrough moment came at the 2016 British Championships, where he took bronze aged 16 to find himself on a podium with household names Louis Smith and Max Whitlock.

It was, says his mother, something of a mental turning point for the Newtownards native who, at that point, thought dining at the very top tier was a while away yet.

Suddenly there was no longer any separation between himself and the biggest names in his sport. The belief carried through the the Gold Coast and the 2018 Commonwealth games where, at 18, McClenaghan had his sights set on becoming the first Northern Irishman to win an artistic gymnastic medal at the Games.

"Initially we sort of thought 'it's in Australia, it's very far away, I don't know if we'll go' and then his coach is telling us that he's probably going to make the final," says Tracy.

"Then, as it's coming closer he's telling us he's going to win a medal. Rhys was telling us he was going to win gold."

And so he did! He pipped Whitlock to the top of the podium to cement himself among the sport's elite, where he has remained ever since.

That same year he claimed a European gold, before taking bronze at the World Championships in Stuttgart in 2019. Fresh out of his teenage years, McClenaghan had become a star of the sport.

'There's no point worrying about things you can't control'

The meticulous world of artistic gymnastics leaves little room for improvisation. Watch a pommel horse routine and you marvel at the intricate hand placement, movement and balance that, if out of step for even just a fraction of a second, can see the whole routine collapse.

As in many sports, it might be the physicality that catches the untrained eye, but those inside the tent will tell you theirs is a game won and lost between the ears.

Recently McClenaghan has, via his YouTube channelexternal-link, opened a door into his world, taking the viewer with him on his daily four-hour round trip to his training base in Dublin and in recent weeks to the athletes' village in Tokyo.

What is striking, aside from a multitude of seemingly routine exercises that would make a contortionist wince, is the relaxed and carefree attitude that McClenaghan and his longtime coach Luke Carson carry with them through their daily sessions.

It is, says Tracy, not something that is put on for the camera. Far from it; it is this very mindset that has allowed McClenaghan to continue to move forward despite some considerable professional adversity that has tested his resolve.

In 2018, Carson was made redundant from the pair's training base at Rathgael Gym just two weeks before the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup.

With no training facility and no time to find a short-term fix before the competition, McClenaghan went back to his roots; if the garden was good enough for him at six, it was good enough for him at 19.

Rhys McClenaghan and Luke Carson
McClenaghan's friendship with longtime coach Luke Carson is critical to his success

"He had no club to train at with a World Cup two weeks away, so he just pulled the old pommel horse out of the garden shed and got into the garden and got on with it," recalls Tracy.

"I remember asking him if he was still going to the World Cup and he said that even if he couldn't compete, he could go and train over there."

This appears to be the McClenaghan mindset - and positivity and a problem-solving mentality are priceless tools in a job in which one false move can derail a routine.

"Even through Covid and the first lockdown, he always found the positive," Tracy says.

"There was talk of the Olympics being cancelled and the whole way through he was training as if it was going to happen. Then the cancellation was announced and I was worried but he said 'it's ok, I'll be even stronger next year'

"Rhys is very much of the mindset that there's no point worrying about things that you can't control.

"He had no control over what was going on at the club, he had no control over Covid and no control over needing the surgery, therefore he didn't see it in his mindset that he would need to worry."

And so to Tokyo, Sunday and the biggest stage his sport has to offer.

The 16-year-old who turned heads with a podium finish at the British Championships is now a 22-year-old who would arguably cause more of a shock were he not on the podium.

However, despite the stakes, the expectation and the pressure there is one thing that has not changed.

McClenaghan loves the sport now every bit as much as the six-year-old who cartwheeled his way into a space at the local gymnastics class.

That, you could argue, is more important than all the rest put together.

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