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Rising star Rhys has gymnastics world at his feet

 

By David Kelly

On the bedroom wall of Rhys McClenaghan is a large map of the world with pins identifying every stop he has made so far in his soaring rise to the higher echelons of gymnastics. Over the coming years it is likely to be peppered to the point of destruction such is the talent of this exceptional 17-year-old Ards lad.

Some are dubbing the Rathgael Gymnastics Club member the little prince of the pommel on the back of his gold medal winning performance at last weekend's World Cup challenge event in Croatia when triumphing over numerous more experienced campaigners.

Montreal will be the next major venue for Rhys when he competes at the World Championships in September and then his sights will be on representing Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in April next year.

Not only is the UK waking up to the potential of Rhys but also the world and it has coincided with linking up with former top gymnast Luke Carson who was forced to retire through injury, having trained alongside such great competitors as Louis Smith and Dan Keatings in England.

"I was juggling between loads of coaches, I had to jump between them because ones were coming and leaving and then coming back so there was no one person at the start for me but when I came to Luke that's when everything changed," said Rhys, who this year has also become Irish and British senior champion.

"I came to Luke in 2014, when he came to Rathgael. I had joined Salto but then moved back to Rathgael and Luke changed me from a standard gymnast, say top 20 in the British championships, to being one of the best in Britain to now becoming one of the best in the world. It's all down to Luke, his training style was completely different to anything I'd seen, it's just unbelievable.

"Anyone involved in gymnastics who had seen me at 14 to now, would be thinking what has happened here and he was the reason for that."

Luke smiles at the compliments flowing his way but is also quick to emphasise the character of Rhys and the impact of his parents Daniel and Tracy.

Carson said: "I knew that he had raw talent and that it hadn't been nurtured correctly and I knew that if he could be nurtured correctly then he could go on to do great things.

"Most coaches just think about what happens from the neck down and obviously that is important because you need a good strong body but I focus a lot on the neck up. I learned my coaching and planning from the best in the world.

"There's no magic recipe, it's about knowing your ability and relying on your preparation and Rhys always prepares well and if you know you can rely on that then whatever the event is, it is simply doing the routine one more time."

The gymnastics journey started at the age of six for Rhys when mum Tracy took him along to Rathgael and he hasn't looked back, even sacrificing other sports at a tender age as well as committing himself to such dedication that social life is often put on the backburner.

"With my mates and my girlfriend Rebecca I prepare them that they're not going to see much of me until after a certain competition or training. I work out six days a week and the day off is a full recovery day so I can't be going out wasting energy," added Rhys, who is studying sport at college in Bangor.

"Rebecca is very understanding, she knows how hard I have to train. I think the hardest point so far for me was making the transition from junior to senior level. The routine became so much more difficult, the amount of skills required under the rules of gymnastics was very demanding. You have to be grinding so hard in the gym to get the skills right. It's a long routine, it's so enduring on your body and mind. It really stretched me and I was getting stressed out - it really stretched me.

"I know this part of what it takes to be up with the very best... there are times when I am standing waiting to do the next part of my training and I stand thinking 'I just love this sport'. I work about 30 hours a week, my sessions are four hours long and I've been doing that so long that for me it's just normal. I can go out with friends but I will never let anything jeopardise my gymnastics."

Such a single-minded approach is what fuels the belief of coach Carson that Rhys can be a real force on every major stage, including the Olympics.

"Gymnastics is a constant struggle. It's all or nothing - only the select few make it. You have to have that dedication, you can't go out every weekend, you have to make that lifestyle choice," added Luke.

"Rhys has that maturity and his parents have played a key role. I've seen some parents get in the way of kids but his parents trust me and they trust the club which at the recent Irish championships won every medal bar one."

Belfast Telegraph

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