Rhys McClenaghan on competing with Max Whitlock: "I like to think of it as a rivalry"

The European and Commonwealth Games pommel horse champion is readying for a battle with the reigning Olympic champion at Euros, Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

By Scott Bregman
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Ireland's Rhys McClenaghan announced his arrival onto the international gymnastics scene at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. At those Games, he became the first Irish man to win a medal of any colour at the event when he tied Olympic champion Max Whitlock. McClenaghan won the tie break - and therefore, the gold medal - based on a higher execution score.

It's a competition that still plays in the 21-year-old's head.

"Even at that Commonwealth Games, when I stood on the podium, I just kept thinking about what this would do for the sport in the country, for younger gymnasts to see an 18-year-old beating the current Olympic champion," he told Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview.

"That's going to do something to their minds, that's going to inspire them and motivate them. People have said that to me throughout the past couple of years since I've been on the senior stage and that in itself means a huge amount."

He backed that historic accomplishment up months later at the European Championships, once again taking gold while Whitlock settled for seventh after a fall.

"To win European Championships almost straight after that was just kind of to tell everybody: 'I'm here for good, that wasn't it just wasn't a one off. I'm here for good,'" he admitted.

The Dublin-based gymnast says he enjoys their budding rivalry, but knows in the end, only his performance matters.

"I like to think of it as a rivalry. I like that competitive nature of sports, and that's why you'll see me make comments like ‘I can't wait for our next battle, Max’ or ‘I'm coming for that world title,'" McClenaghan explained.

"However, when it does come down to competing, it's me up there. It's me competing my routine to the best of my ability and anybody else's job is out of my control."

It hasn't been all smooth sailing.

The Irishman underwent surgery in late 2018 on his shoulder, but came back strong in 2019 to win the bronze on the pommel horse at the World Championships. That performance qualified to the Olympic Games in Tokyo, but then came the pandemic and Olympic postponement.

Despite all that, as McClenaghan prepares for the European Championships in late April in Basel, Switzerland, he feels that he's better than ever and plans to unveil a new routine at the event.

"I've upgraded my routine by a substantial amount," said McClenaghan. "I'm excited to show it. I've always said this from even before Christmas, I just want to show everybody this routine, but I want to show it out there on the competition floor because that's when it matters."

Below is a transcript of Olympic Channel's interview with McClenaghan, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Olympic Channel: With the Olympics five months away, how is your training going?

Rhys McClenaghan: I'm just as excited as I was maybe this time last year until we got the news that the Olympics was being postponed. Of course, after that announcement was made, there's a little bit of mental rejigging going on in my head that I had to make essentially to not mentally burn out because you can't be focused in on that one goal for an extra year and a half.

I feel like now I've just kind of regained where I was at last year, and I'm better than I was last year in terms of my gymnastics. I'm way better. I've upgraded my routine, so I'm looking for an opportunity to show that off, hopefully, at the European Championships

It was meant to be at the World Cups at Baku and Doha. Unfortunately, they didn't go ahead. So actually, in place of those World Cups, we've just done mock competitions. We just held little competitions in our gym where my coach would judge the routine. We've got a couple of other judges into the gym because it's just this big, empty gym, so we thought we may as well make the most of these opportunities, get myself in that competitive state. You know, even little things: we would walk outside of the gym and walk up an empty corridor to replicate that competition scenario where we would have to walk through a corridor to the competition arena. There was a few thousand fans less there in my gym, but we still we still tried to get the energy and the anxiety of competing actually flowing through my body. It was a good thing those past few mock competitions, but I'm raring to get out again… and hopefully it's at the Europeans and after that the Olympic Games.

OC: Tell us a little more about the mental reset you went through after the postponement was announced.

RM: Everybody was kind of in the same boat, right? Like everybody had plans cancelled on them. Obviously, for Olympic athletes, the big thing was the Olympics being cancelled and people's plans had to change, me falling into that category as well, where the mental adjustments I had to make was taking a bit of a step back from gymnastics.

Obviously being in the house, being in lockdown, there was limited amounts of gymnastics I could do. So just getting myself worked up about it wouldn't have helped me. And being obsessed with gymnastics wouldn't have helped either. I did actually just take a little bit of a mental step back from gymnastics. I continued to train. I kept up the motivation as much as I could. But I felt like if I kept that obsession in my mind, like I actually currently have now, where I'll be analyzing routines for two hours every evening after my training session – that’s obsession that makes you better.

But at the same time, I don't want my mind to burn out. I'm very, very mindful of my mental health when it comes to training, especially, so when I did see that the Olympics would definitely be at least postponed until next year, I was like, ‘OK, let's take a step back and let's think about other things in life,’ because there is, at the end of the day, more to life than gymnastics. But that is one of my main goals, of course.

OC: Are there any challenges to not getting to see the other athletes you’re competing against for such a long time?

RM: I don't think it's too difficult because I know what the top guys are doing. But at the same time, I don't really look to them as anything to base my routine off. I would look to my own capabilities because I'd see it as if you look to somebody who's up at the top level and say the likes of Max [Whitlock] or Lee Chih-kai, if I looked to them as the standard, then that might be setting my standard lower than what I'm capable of.

So, I might be way better than those guys, so if I focus on my own abilities, then I could be way better than those guys. I set my standard way higher, and especially, I looked at a lot of guys like Zhang Hongtao and Xiao Qin, two Chinese gymnasts of the of the same kind of time frame as well, both multiple world champions. Xiao Qin being an Olympic champion. I consider those two the best pommel workers of all time and those are the people who I analyze their routines. It's a bit more grainy footage now because it was back in the in the noughties. But, those are the people I look towards, and I want to strive to be better than those people because I feel like they're the best of all time.

OC: There’s a small group of men who have put themselves at the top on pommel horse. Do you view it as a rivalry amongst you all?

RM: I like to think of it as a rivalry. I like that competitive nature of sports, and that's why you'll see me make comments like ‘I can't wait for our next battle next Max’ or ‘I'm coming for that world title.’

I love the competitive nature of sports. I think that's what drives people towards the sports, and if I can help anybody get pushed towards gymnastics and doing gymnastics because of that competitive nature, I'd love to help that. That's why you would see me making comments like that.

However, when it does come down to competing, it's me up there. It's me competing my routine to the best of my ability and anybody else's job is out of my control. The one thing I kept saying to myself at the 2019 World Championships is this is an amazing final because it was it was the best final I've ever seen, and for me to be a part of that, for me to be a medallist in it, it was pretty special. I like seeing the fact that there's maybe seven or eight guys that can that can take that top spot now, which is an incredible thing. It's exciting. It's exciting for the viewers. It's exciting for me as a gymnast.

OC: How long did it take your Olympic qualification to really sink in?

RM: It was pretty crazy when I was sitting in the hotel room, refreshing the results because it depends on how many people qualified in that final. I kind of knew throughout the day… I was like, ‘I think I'm qualified to the Olympic Games because there's no other guys that could beat this score,’ but I didn't quite believe it until last score came in.

When the last score came in, just all of the emotions hit me and I kept relaying in my head I've qualified to the Olympic Games, I've qualified to the Olympic Games. And then, when I called my mum, it was a very emotional phone call because we just couldn't get the words out at all pretty much. I’m even getting a little bit choked up talking about it now, that just shows how much it means to me and how it stood for a year and a half. Those emotions still stand and it's going to mean the world to me as soon as I go out there and present to those judges on the Olympic stage.

OC: You mentioned some upgrades to your routine. Can you tell us about those?

RM: I think it's nice to keep it a secret what skills exactly I've put in. I can tell now that I've upgraded my routine by a substantial amount.

I'm excited to show it. I've always said this from even before Christmas, I just want to show everybody this routine, but I want to show it out there on the competition floor because that's when it matters. You see a lot of people bragging about the skills they can do in training, but it's out there on the competition floor that it really matters and that's where I'm going to show best routine out there.

OC: You’d have so many first for Ireland. Is there one that stands out to you?

RM: All of them just means something different to me, really. It kind of all started at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, where it was a first for Northern Ireland ever to win a medal or make a final of the Commonwealth Games. Even at that Commonwealth Games, when I stood on the podium, I just kept thinking about what this would do for the sport in the country, for younger gymnasts to see an 18 year old beating the current Olympic champion. That's going to do something to their minds, that's going to inspire them and motivate them. People have said that to me throughout the past couple of years since I've been on the senior stage and that in itself means a huge amount.

After winning Commonwealth Games, to win European Championships almost straight after that was just kind of to tell everybody I'm here for good, that wasn't it just wasn't a one off. I'm here for good.

I went through the shoulder surgery, of course, late 2018 and then to even come back from that and win that world medal being better than I've ever been before… everybody saw a clear difference in my circle technique. My execution score went way up. It impressed a lot of people that I was back from a surgery, and I'm better than ever.

So, even having this year off, not injured, just think about how much better I'll be this year. That’s something to look forward to for everybody. But all of those huge results, all of those first for the country, they mean a huge amount to me. I just hope that the younger generation can surpass my achievements. I want them to absolutely smash all my records I set because the only way is up from here.

OC: Do you let yourself dream about being the first Irish gymnast to win an Olympic medal?

RM: Yeah, I often think about it. I'm not one to shy away from thoughts like that because those are the thoughts that drive me and motivate me in training. When I'm going through a bad day, I often go to sleep at night thinking about that Olympic medal going around my neck and that's what makes me get up the next morning and work harder than I've ever worked before. I often let that motivate me.
But when it comes down to it, when I present to the judges, I'm in that moment competing in my routine to the best of my ability, and then soon as my feet hit the floor and I finish the routine, then the celebrations can happen.

OC: What is your first memory of the Olympic Games?

RM: I think a stand out one for me because I kind of I started taking gymnastics seriously around 8 years old, and I would have just been past the 2008 Olympics, so I didn't get to watch that too much when I was younger. I've watched it all now, of course. But the standout one for me would have probably been that pommel final at London 2012. What stood out to me most was I went over to London to watch the opening ceremony, and when I was there, Louis Smith was the big name. He was the one that was going to take the Olympic medal for Team GB. When I was in London, there's big posters, big Adidas posters, with Louis on it. He was all over the news. Everybody was rooting for him.

The moment that stood out to me most was when he stood up on to the podium on the competition floor before he had even started his routine, and the crowd just went crazy. I was taken aback at how much pressure was on that man and the fact that he'd done the routine the way he did flawlessly. Absolutely beautiful routine. It really just showed me how powerful the mind can be in a situation like that. Even at the age of 12, which I was at that time, I was able to sit back and appreciate this is incredible how he pulled off that routine in that moment.

OC: Have you gotten to talk to Louis about that moment?

RM: Yeah – Louis and my coach [Luke Carson] are good friends, so I've been able to meet Louis multiple times and he's shared his wisdom with me. Even during the lockdown, I messaged my coach and was like... Because I had questions floating through my head about different situations and about the Olympics mostly, actually, and asked my coach, ‘do you think I could talk with Louis?’ So, me and Louis went on a FaceTime call, and I sat for hours, I wrote down a list of questions that I wanted to ask him. I was interviewing him like crazy, asking him all the questions I wanted to know about what he thought about certain situations and different performances. And I hold them all up here in my head now, which is a very good thing so I thank Louis for that.

OC: What was some of the best advice you got from Louis?

RM: One good piece of advice that sticks with me is always do you routine for yourself, don't have any external factors in that moment. So that's why I say when I present to the judges, it's me and the pommel horse and that moment, nobody else is there. I think that's a very, very powerful thing to carry with you in those stressful situations like in London 2012. I'm sure that that was something that he was there with. He was just in an empty stadium, him and the pommel horse.

OC: Have you thought beyond Tokyo? Is Paris 2024 something you dream about, too?

RM: I think Paris is a good goal, and we'll see what happens after there. I don't like to plan too far in the future because you never know what can happen. But Paris is definitely a goal of mine. I'm going to be doing gymnastics for the foreseeable future, and I can't wait to have more world titles and Olympic titles put around my neck.