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Rhys McClenaghan ready to resume 'exciting rivalry' with Olympic champion Max Whitlock

Newtownards man has European gold firmly in his sights


Swiss mission: Rhys McClenaghan will return to action in next week’s European Championships in Basel

Swiss mission: Rhys McClenaghan will return to action in next week’s European Championships in Basel

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Swiss mission: Rhys McClenaghan will return to action in next week’s European Championships in Basel

It's time for him to find out. Eighteen months on from his last competition and three months away from the ultimate test, Rhys McClenaghan is about to learn all he needs to know about the legitimacy of a vision he has long held - Olympic gold.

At next week's European Championships in Artistic Gymnastics in Basel, Switzerland, the 21-year-old Newtownards man will face off against the gymnast setting the standard in the men's pommel horse, Britain's Max Whitlock.

Whitlock is the reigning Olympic champion and a three-time world champion, but McClenaghan has beaten him before - at the 2018 European Championships - and he's convinced he can do so again.

"I've always wanted that top spot and he is the man to beat," says McClenaghan. "It's an exciting rivalry and I'm glad it's there; it makes the sport more exciting and it does push me in training."

McClenaghan hadn't planned this event to mark the competitive start and finish point of his Olympic preparation, but the pandemic shredded many an athlete's script.

He hoped to open his season at World Cup events, but they went the way of many others over the past 12 months, and instead he went through a series of mock competitions at the Sport Ireland Campus in Abbotstown.

They brought in judges, with McClenaghan competing only against himself, and he tried to conjure up the same feeling he'll experience next week, the same one that awaits in Tokyo.

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"I try to hype myself up, get the nerves flowing," he explains.

His last competition was the 2019 World Championships in Doha, where McClenaghan won bronze in the pommel horse with a score of 15.400, with Whitlock edging gold with 15.500. That score is formed from the sum of the difficulty and execution scores of a gymnast's routine and, while McClenaghan had by far the highest execution score in that final, the difficulty of Whitlock's routine is what propelled him to gold.

To win gold at the Europeans, or indeed at the Olympics, McClenaghan knew he needed to attempt a more difficult routine and, over the past year, he and coach Luke Carson have gone about putting it together, the key difference being the inclusion of a new skill that was not present in 2019.

"It'll up the start value by quite a lot," he says. "Because of the extra year, I now have the confidence to perform that new skill and I'm very excited to showcase it. This whole competition programme has been very positive and a great stepping stone for the Olympic Games.

"My body is in 100 per cent health, my mind is in 100 per cent health and we're ready for these European championships."

His self-assured style goes against the grain of many in Olympic sports, where bombastic predictions are typically withheld in an athlete's mind for fear of underperformance. But McClenaghan has never seen the need to do that and he's been heartened to see others in Irish sport act the same way.

"It was very inspiring to see the success of the rowers and to see more Irish athletes come out and say, 'we want to take Olympic gold,' not just saying, 'oh, hopefully things go well, hopefully we get a personal best'," he points out.

He won't know for sure until he's out there, but right now things couldn't be going much better.

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