Local sports fans will hold their breath again around lunchtime tomorrow when Rhys McClenaghan goes for glory in the Men’s Pommel Horse final in Tokyo’s Ariake Gymnastics Centre.
Ireland’s first world-class gymnast sets himself high standards. The Newtownards native is a European and Commonwealth champion and in 2019 won a bronze medal at the World Championships.
He also fell off the horse at this spring’s European Championship when he looked poised to deliver another gold medal. The dividing line between success and failure at this level is wafer thin.
His performance in the qualification on the first day of full competition in Tokyo suggests his mishap at the Europeans did not impact on his confidence levels. His score of 15.266 was the joint second highest overall. And it bettered that of the defending Olympic champion Mat Whitlock.
Gymnasts are judged on a combination of the difficulty and execution of their routine. McClenaghan together with Japan’s Kohei Kameyama and Taiwan’s Chih Kai Lee all were given identical scores – but Lee was given first place as he achieved a higher executive mark.
Ever since he was a kid growing up in Newtownards, McClenaghan has been obsessed by the sport. By the time he was 11 he had conquered to triple Russian on one handle, the hardest skill on the pommel horse. But he was still in base camp in terms of the journey from Co Down to Tokyo.
After his fellow Ulsterman Luke Carson became his coach in 2014, he made him spend six months re-learning all the basic skills again.
“I did resent it, but I knew it had to be done,” recalled McClenaghan
Nonetheless, their coach-athlete relationship blossomed. “Straight away I started to excel. It was a no-brainer that Luke was the coach for me. He has got me to where I am today and I’m grateful.
“Of course, there will always be hard days in the gym when you will be crying your eyes out and your hand will be bleeding so much that you doubt why you are in the sport. But then you just realise how much you really love the sport.”