Northern Ireland’s Olympic medal hopeful Rhys McClenaghan has offered his support to fellow gymnast Simone Biles after the USA star pulled out of the team final and competing for individual gold in Tokyo.
He urged people to be mindful of the stress facing athletes.
“Mental blocks ain’t no joke, I’ve experienced this first hand throughout my career and they are still the most challenging times I’ve faced,” said 23-year-old Rhys, who is making his Olympic debut in this year’s games, and is the first ever Irish gymnast to qualify for an Olympic final.
The Newtownards man is one of the medal favourites ahead the pommel horse final on Sunday, as his qualifying score of 15.266 was the joint second highest overall.
In 2019, he became the first Irish gymnast to qualify for a world championships final and to also win a medal, the first Irish gymnast to compete in a European final, and also the first to win a European medal.
“Only people who have experienced this can fully understand the stress that comes with it,” added Rhys, who is an ambassador for Action Mental Health in Northern Ireland.
Biles (24) won four gold medals for the US Gymnastics team in Rio in 2016, and had hoped to defend her titles this year. However, a mistake on her opening vault in Tuesday night’s team final prompted her to leave the arena with a US team medic, and pull out of the final altogether, citing mental health concerns.
Biles said on Tuesday: “It’s been really stressful these Olympic Games, not having an audience. It’s been a long week, a long Olympic process, a long year. We are just a little bit too stressed out. We should be out here having fun.
“I feel like I’m also not having as much fun and this Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself and it felt like I was still doing it for other people. It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been taken away from me to please other people.”
Biles has since withdrawn from the defence of her all-around title but USA Gymnastics said Biles is yet to decide whether to pull out from her other four individual finals, which are scheduled to take place next week.
She added: “I just think mental health is more prevalent in sports right now... we have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do. I don’t trust myself as much anymore, maybe it’s getting older.”
McClenaghan, a Commonwealth gold medallist on the pommel horse, spent long hours training alone in his garden during lockdown as he battled back from injury, regularly posting videos of his regime on social media.
In a short video for Action mental Health posted just before he travelled to Tokyo for the Olympics, the Co Down star said: “For me, bravery is tackling challenges head on. I will always be trying to improve on my weaknesses and I see that as the challenge to me, almost like a fun way to improve myself.
“But there are always going to be very difficult challenges along the way.
“Last year, I had shoulder surgery and I wasn’t able to do gymnastics. That was one of those challenges I had to overcome I did and managed to qualify for the Olympics.
“Bravery is opening up to somebody, talking to them. It’s a very scary thing to do about any issues that you have, but it’s something I’d highly recommend.
“It’s something that has helped me throughout gymnastics career and my life.
“Bottling things up inside your head will not help anything at all.”