Gymnastics whizzkids Rhys McClenaghan and Ewan McAteer aiming high after British bronze joy
Bigger tests lie ahead as duo juggle GCSE exams and Euro mission
Northern Ireland teenage stars Ewan McAteer and Rhys McClenaghan believe their outstanding performances at the British Gymnastics Championships can give them the confidence to fulfil even bigger dreams in the future.
On Grand National weekend in Liverpool, the 16-year-old boys jumped just about every hurdle put in front of them to win bronze medals in their respective events at a packed Echo Arena.
McClenaghan, a member of the Rathgael Gymnastics club in Bangor, finished third in the pommel horse event behind World champion Max Whitlock and Olympic silver medallist Louis Smith.
McAteer, from the City of Lisburn Salto club, also made the podium in the vault.
They flew home on Sunday and were in school the next day with Ewan attending Methody and Rhys going to Regent House.
Later this year the pair will take GCSE exams... with a twist.
Both are in line to be selected for the Irish team to compete in the European Junior Championships in Bern in May which clashes with their exams.
The solution to the problem will come inside the British Embassy in the Swiss city where both will sit several exams in a special arrangement with their schools and education authorities.
Importantly both mums are content with the compromise.
Tracy McClenaghan, mother of Rhys, said: "It has been organised that Rhys can do four of his GCSEs in the British Embassy. It is an important competition for Rhys and his career so it is one he can't miss but his education is also important. It is difficult to find a balance between the gymnastics and schoolwork but it has helped Rhys become good at time management."
Janet McAteer, who is Ewan's mum, added: "He is in line for selection for Ireland for the European Junior Championships and if that happens Ewan will have to do some of his GCSEs in the British Embassy in Switzerland. Ewan is very good with his studies and even brought some books over to Liverpool."
On the gymnastics front, Ewan suffered a stress fracture in his back in October and then a stress fracture in his wrist in December. At one stage it was touch and go if he would make it to the British Championships, but once there he performed brilliantly.
One year ago he won a bronze in the Under-16 category. This time he did it taking on some of the best vaulters in the world after making it through to what is known as the Masters final at the weekend.
"Winning a bronze medal was amazing and to do it after my injuries made it even more special," said McAteer.
"Going over to Liverpool I thought there was a small possibility that I would make the Masters final but to actually do it and then finish third was incredible.
"To be competing against people like Kristian Thomas, an Olympic Games and World Championship medallist, was incredible for me.
"That will give me confidence going forward, as will being able to do well in front of 3,500 people.
"My next aim is to go to the European Junior Championships in Switzerland.
"I may have to sit some of my GCSE exams out there which will be a challenge. My school Methody are very good about the situation and I want to thank them for that.
"Long-term the dream is to take part in the Commonwealth Games for Northern Ireland in 2018 and the Olympic Games in 2020."
Lisburn lad McAteer, who has two brothers Cameron and Kylan, paid tribute to his coach of one and a half years, Tunisian Wajdi Bouallegue, stating his gymnastics has 'moved to a different level' under the Olympian.
Coach of McClenaghan, Luke Carson, a former Commonwealth Games gymnast, insists that one day his protege won't just compete at the Olympics, but will return to Northern Ireland with a gold medal around his neck.
"I truly believe he can become an Olympic champion in the future," said Carson.
"It is not just me as his coach who thinks he has a big future ahead. Other renowned coaches have recognised his talent and Louis Smith and Max Whitlock also think he has great ability.
"When I started coaching Rhys it was clear he had talent and big skills, but he was also rugged and raw. He has progressed so well.
"The pommel horse is his strongest apparatus but all round he is very strong.
"His whole year has been built around the European Junior Championships in May and the British Championships was a stepping stone. What he did at the weekend was not surprising to me. His routine was world class.
"To be on the podium with Louis and Max at 16 years of age is monumental and for me as a coach it trumped anything I did as a gymnast."
Rhys stated: "It was an unbelievable feeling to win a bronze medal, finishing behind the top two in the world.
"It was fantastic competing against Louis and Max, who are my idols and have done so much for our sport. They have been very supportive to me which I have really appreciated.
"What I achieved at the weekend at the Echo Arena has given me great confidence to go on and compete well at even bigger events in the future.
"I've been very committed from day one and intend on staying that way to take myself as far as possible."
Returning to school, Rhys, whose older brother Elliott is studying at Newcastle University, received a warm welcome.
"It was a little crazy. Everyone was very nice to me and all the teachers said well done. It's been such a great experience and I'd love to keep pushing on to improve," said McClenaghan, who took up the sport when he was seven.
Mum Tracy, married to Danny, recalls: "Rhys was a real climber when he was really young and would do somersaults in the house. My husband's sister did gymnastics to quite a high level and said about getting him into the sport but we held off until he was seven and everything kicked off from there.
"We started out at the Bangor Rathgael club, and then went to Salto Gym for six years. We are now back at Bangor where Luke Carson coaches him. Rhys has made fantastic progress. Luke is more than a coach to Rhys, he is also a mentor."
On Ewan's early days as a gymnast his mum Janet, whose husband is Paul, says: "Ewan was around eight when he started. He went into a local summer scheme at Salto and when I came back on his first day they told me that he had some talent for the sport. That one hour per week has gone to 26 hours per week. It takes a lot of dedication and we are very proud of him."