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Gymnastics saved me from exam fails, says Olympic hero Rhys McClenaghan


POISE: Rhys McClenaghan

POISE: Rhys McClenaghan

POISE: Rhys McClenaghan

Trailblazing Olympian Rhys McClenaghan says taking up gymnastics as a kid stopped him from failing his GCSEs.

The pommel horse athlete (22), from Newtownards, Co Down, became the first Irish gymnast to reach an Olympic final at the Tokyo games earlier this year.

He has enjoyed a stellar career since taking up gymnastics as a teenager, and credits the sport with saving his failing grades in his teens.

He told Sunday Life: “I struggled a lot with school work growing up so being able to have that different outlet during my day with training for gymnastics really boosted my confidence.

“If I hadn’t done any sports my confidence would be pretty low because I wasn’t that good academically but I was able to fall back on my gymnastics and I knew I could make it as a gymnast and athlete.

“It was a huge benefit to me, at one point the school called my parents down to talk about maybe cutting back my time spent on it but we knew that would make things worse.

“That was my outlet, it was the thing I was passionate about, and if that had been taken away then my grades probably would have plummeted even more than they had already.”

Rhys won Ireland’s first ever medal at the European Championships in Switzerland in 2016, taking silver on the pommel horse while also having to sit a GCSE exam in the British Embassy in Bern while he was there.


A promo shoot of Rhys ahead of the Tokyo Games last summer

A promo shoot of Rhys ahead of the Tokyo Games last summer

A promo shoot of Rhys ahead of the Tokyo Games last summer

Despite the busy schedule and the pressure to perform both in his exams and in the gymnasium, Rhys also said the sport has helped with his mental health throughout his young life.

He continued: “I speak from experience in that I grew up in sports and I could feel the benefits it gave me in terms of my mental health as a kid, and that carries on into later life too.

“I think I’ll be using the lessons I learned in sport until the day I die. I really do think sport helps with mental health because it’s a constant process of being in tune with your mind and body.

“Sport for me was my life, I went through my school days thinking about what I was going to do in the gym so for me that drive and ambition helped me a huge amount.

“It especially helped when times were hard, if something was bothering me I’d be happy to go take my mind off it or help improve my mental state around whatever was going on outside of the gym by training.”


Co Down athlete Rhys McClenaghan

Co Down athlete Rhys McClenaghan

Co Down athlete Rhys McClenaghan

Since bursting on to the scene as a teenager Rhys has gone on to enjoy a successful career as a gymnast and despite setbacks this year at the World Championships and in the Olympic final, he is focused on performing at Paris 2024.

He added: “In sport you learn so many different ways to deal with failure and the setbacks this year were by no means the only failures I have ever had in my life.

“Looking back, some of it was disappointing at face value but I’m a very optimistic person and I can take the positives out of it.

“I became an Olympian and became the first ever Irish finalist which is a huge step forward for the sport as a whole.

“Going into Paris 2024 we’ve made the final and made that part of history and now it’s time to get a medal wrapped around my neck.

“The Olympics is the pinnacle of the sport and is my main focus but I want to go to all the competitions and win all the medals.

“To win gold in Paris would mean the world to me, it’s my life’s work which is going to be at risk which is what is so exciting about the Olympic Games because you know everyone has trained their entire lives to get to that point.

“It’s what makes the competition, it makes the highs and lows even more intense and that’s what I love about it.”

Rhys was speaking to Sunday Life as an ambassador for Lidl’s Sport for Good campaign which helps to promote positive mental health through sports in schools.

Over the last two years the campaign has supported more than 80 sports clubs and schools across Northern Ireland and provided more than £220,000 in funding to encourage more young people into sport.

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