Rhys McClenaghan says that the day he does not set himself the target of winning gold at a major competition is the day he steps away from gymnastics.
The 23-year-old’s comments came after claiming a silver medal in the Pommel Horse discipline at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, where he was proud to be on the podium for Northern Ireland again but also open on his disappointment that it wasn’t on the top step.
In an honest assessment of his performance, McClenaghan admitted that an error mid-routine cost him, insisting that winner Joe Fraser from England was the ‘better man on the day’.
Just like McClenaghan in the weeks leading up to the Games, there were doubts as to whether Fraser would compete in his home city after being rushed to hospital with a ruptured appendix six weeks back before breaking his foot a fortnight ago.
Somehow he found a way to be ready and, in front of a passionate crowd at Arena Birmingham, he produced a flawless routine, scoring 14.833.
Even so, as McClenaghan stepped up next, he felt he could still win gold, but a mistake midway through the routine proved crucial and while he managed to stay on the apparatus – unlike a number of the other finalists – there would be no repeat of his gold medal heroics in Australia’s Gold Coast four years ago.
McClenaghan scored 14.133 and ended in second place, with Canada’s Jayson Rampersad third with 14.000.
There was drama during the competition when McClenaghan’s coach Luke Carson made an appeal about his gymnast’s score, but it was dismissed by the judges. Carson stated afterwards that he was wrong to put in the appeal, explaining he initially thought that the dismount was a higher degree of difficulty than the judges scored.
McClenaghan went into his second Commonwealth Games declaring his belief that he would defend his title. It was the same story a year ago when he only talked about winning before the Olympics in Tokyo prior to slipping off the pommel horse and finishing seventh.
That confidence and conviction is his way, and it is a refreshing one at that, bringing him Commonwealth Games and European Championship titles in 2018 and a 2019 World Championship bronze. Don’t expect the Newtownards native to change his approach ahead of the European and World Championships later this year.
“Every competition I go to I’m thinking that. If I ever started saying ‘oh, I just want to make the Final’, you’ll know I’m finished gymnastics,” he said. “I’m going into every single competition wanting to win gold. It would be silly for me not to do that because I know what I’m capable of.
“That routine wasn’t my best routine, and that’s why I’ve got a silver medal instead of gold. That’s gymnastics, that’s how the sport works. Sometimes there’s hiccups in the routine. I was a little bit gutted because that routine was going so well, the first half was flawless and on track to win that gold medal but it wasn’t to be.”
Explaining his error, McClenaghan added: “Going into the travel sequences, my shoulders were just a little bit behind me and that can set you off your balance, so I had to split my legs to find that balance again and fight to stay on the horse.
“I’m glad I did that, the fact I stayed on the horse is the reason why I’ve got a silver medal, but I know I can’t be making those errors at the majors like the Europeans or Worlds. I don’t even think that routine would make a podium at those competitions, so I know what to do in training.
“Unfortunately when you make an error like that, the judges’ pens go to paper and they start deducting you like crazy. Well done to Joe, who was the better man on the day.”
Speaking to the BBC, Olympic champion Max Whitlock, who McClenaghan defeated to win Commonwealth gold four years ago, suggested he “should have pushed the boat out a little more and put the risk factor up.”
Asked whether a perfect routine would have won him gold, McClenaghan responded: “Not even perfect. If there just wasn’t that big error in the routine I would have won gold. That routine was capable of scoring 15.2, 15.3 — if I had gone through that routine clean I would have taken that gold no problem, but I didn’t.”
Coach Carson stated: “I know Rhys will be very disappointed. That’s about a mark less than he would have been hoping to score.
“He did a routine on Sunday in training that scored a 15.3. That’s where Rhys should be. Rhys should be in the 15s. He will be very happy and proud with a silver but from his own personal point of view we were all aiming for higher.”
While gold was the plan, when the dust settles the silver will represent another medal at a major competition for Northern Ireland’s greatest gymnast.
Remember back in April when it looked as though he would not be competing after a ludicrous decision by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) to bar him and his team-mates Eamon Montgomery and Ewan McAteer from taking part in the Games after previously representing Ireland in international competition? After a storm of protests, the decision was overturned.
McClenaghan, a class act in competition and away from it, said: “I know I’m going to look back on this medal and say ‘that’s the time we almost didn’t go’.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the team I’m here with. Eamon and Ewan did their job getting to the Finals (in the Floor and Vault), making history as the most successful Northern Ireland gymnastics team that has ever come to the Commonwealth Games. We can take pride in that and I’ve contributed a medal.”