Rhys McClenaghan: ‘My Olympics mishap was a crushing blow… but I got back up to inspire others to do the same’

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The dismount was flawless, the Japanese-style bowing of the head both humble and respectful.

ut the heartache was unimaginable.

In the blink of an eye — or, in this case, the movement of a single finger — Rhys McClenaghan’s dreams of Olympic gold, forged over years of dedicated, meticulous preparation, had gone.

With millions watching, there was no hiding place that Sunday in Tokyo.

Others might have visibly crumbled or stropped out of the arena, but our boy didn’t.

Instead, the world-class gymnast’s courageous, dignified response to what must have been the biggest disappointment of his young life was inspirational.

He got back on the horse.

“I’ve seen it before in gymnastics when people strop and throw the head up — and there’s nothing admirable about that,” Rhys said.

“I wanted to use the opportunity to show younger gymnasts that no matter how wrong it goes, you always hold your head high, finish your routine strong and continue to be proud because it’s an accomplishment being there at the Olympics.”

He added: “It was a first ever for Ireland being at an Olympic final and I felt right in place there and I’m hoping at the next Olympic Games we get a medal wrapped around my neck.”

The 22-year-old athlete from Co Down could have opted for a safer routine in the pommel horse final — but ‘safe’ does not win you an Olympic gold.

“Something extraordinary” — his words — does, and Rhys was confident he could deliver that.

A highly consistent performer at this discipline, he was a leading contender, having breezed into the eight-man decider, but he said it was “an uncharacteristic error” that led to him slipping off the apparatus.

After composing himself for a few moments in the company of coach Luke Carson, he climbed back on and executed his final few skills to perfection before dismounting for a seventh-place finish in a competition won by defending champion Max Whitlock of Team GB.

A finger had got caught under his hand, and, at this level, it was enough to literally throw him off course.

Such fine margins, and the difference between being Team Ireland’s first Olympic gymnastics finalist — which he is extremely proud of — and its first medallist.

“I’d fallen thousands of times before that in training so I’m no stranger to failing,” said the former Regent House and South East Regional College pupil.

“A lot of people can have a fear of failing. You need to eradicate that fear because it’s going to happen a lot if you’re going to attempt something extraordinary.

“It’s not going to be an easy ride but I’m going to do it eventually.”

You don’t need to be a gymnastics expert to know that Rhys had it in him to bring gold home from Japan.

“I knew I was capable and, looking at it in that way, it can sting a little bit more,” he confided.

“But I just know it wasn’t my time yet. I believe my time will come…”

Rhys was speaking from the family home in Newtownards, which he shares with parents Danny (52), a joiner, and Tracy (50), a nursery school teacher. Older brother Elliot (26), a statistical analyst, lives in London.

His main training base, however, is in Dublin — where he regularly stays on weekdays.

Tokyo was meant to be the culmination of 16 years’ training for Rhys, whose introduction to the sport was at a recreational gymnastics club at his local leisure centre, aged just six.

Although he enjoyed swimming and football, he started to take gymnastics “very seriously” when he was eight.

He said: “I was having to leave gymnastics early to go to football training, and I remember telling my mum that I didn’t want to do football any more, I just wanted to focus on gymnastics.”

His dad used to “help out with some of the sessions”, as well as putting his joinery skills to good use.

“That Christmas, ‘Santa’ left me multiple pieces of hand-made gymnastics equipment,” Rhys recalled.

In addition to having brought him a ‘mushroom’ (a training device for the pommel horse) and a set of parallel bars down the chimney, there were rings hanging from the ceiling as well.

By the time he was 10, the enthusiastic, dedicated youngster was training four hours every day, six days a week.

“My parents were never ones to push me too hard,” he said.

“They just wanted to be sure I was happy in the sport, that I was fulfilling my potential and enjoying what I do. They’ve done an incredible job raising me and supporting me on this journey.”

He initially trained at Salto Gymnastics Centre in Lisburn with coach Vladimir Shchegelov, later moving to Rathgael Gymnastics Club in Bangor to train with long term mentor Luke Carson.

That move didn’t go as smoothly as planned, with Luke being made redundant in 2018 – just months before his prodigy won pommel horse gold in the Commonwealth Games in Australia — pipping Olympic champion Whitlock.

“Unfortunately, Luke being laid off at Rathgael led to a lot of talented local kids leaving gymnastics for good,” said Rhys, who ended up training in his back garden.

“I just brought out my old pommel horse — the one that dad had made when I was younger…”

2018 was a pivotal year for Rhys; apart from his Commonwealth success, he was triumphant in the European Championships in Glasgow, once again getting the better of friend and rival Whitlock.

Having followed up on the historic honour of being Ireland’s European gymnastics champion by taking bronze in the 2019 World Championships in Germany.

But when did it become apparent that he had it in him to be a genuine contender?

“At the British Championships in 2016, when I placed on the podium behind Lewis Smith [a pommel horse medal winner in three consecutive Olympics] and Max Whitlock,” Rhys replied.

“I was just 16 and that showed people — and more importantly myself — that I could compete against these guys.”

Rhys’s decision to represent Team Ireland rather than GB — a dilemma his compatriot and fellow Olympian, golf superstar Rory McIlroy, wrestled with — wasn’t based on any political ideology and wasn’t difficult either.

“I chose Team Ireland simply because they always supported me — not just financially, that came later — from a young age,” he said.

“To me, it’s like rugby. The Ulster players just play for Ireland automatically. And, in my view, Ireland just seems to support Northern Irish gymnasts a lot more than Britain does.”

Another financial supporter of Ireland’s most decorated gymnast is actor James Nesbitt, who came on board in late 2019 after the pair had met at a function hosted by Olympics legend Lady Mary Peters.

“We got chatting and out of the blue he said he’d love to support me on the lead up to Tokyo — and he kept his word,” said Rhys, who was “honoured” to have been awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) in the last New Year’s Honours.

“For an athlete to have that kind of support from such a public figure is so humbling.

“It lifts a weight off your shoulders of any financial troubles you may have.

“His support will forever be remembered and appreciated.”

Rhys may be renowned for his mental toughness — something he demonstrated in Tokyo — but he was quick to offer words of support for fellow gymnast Simone Biles.

Like Rhys, the American superstar made a mistake on something she normally tackles effortlessly — in her case, the vault — and pulled out of subsequent events citing mental health issues.

“A mental block in gymnastics is a unique thing and not a lot of people understand it unless they’ve experienced it themselves,” said Rhys, who described the gifted 24-year-old as “very nice” and “bubbly”.

“Gymnasts have to do a certain number of somersaults and twists in such a short period of time; it almost needs to be muscle memory, and sometimes that can mess up.

“It was that unique gymnastics mental block that happened to her. It’s happened to me in the past and it’s very frustrating. I think Simone made the right decision; she put her health first.”

Biles’ withdrawal from the women’s all-round gymnastics event paved the way for her American colleague Sunisa Lee — whom Rhys calls a good friend — to win gold in the Covid-delayed Tokyo ‘2020’ games.

“I was really happy to see Sunisa crowned Olympic champion,” he said.

“Toyko was a long, frustrating wait for all of us.”

But the year-long postponement means that the next Olympic Games, in Paris, is less than three years away — and Rhys is ready.

Rather than being put off by what happened in Japan, he’s more focused, more determined than ever, to be on that podium in 2024.

Like success and failure, there is a thin line between confidence and arrogance but Rhys McClenaghan inherently demonstrates all of the former without the latter.

“I’m definitely the type of person to turn a negative into a positive and that’s what I’m going to do”, is what he said in Tokyo immediately after his flawed performance in the final.

If you’re wondering where that sheer determination comes from, look no further than a quote from the Chinese philosopher Confucius that Rhys revealed he has inscribed on his bedroom wall.

It reads: “The greatest glory lies not in never falling but in rising every time we fall…”