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Legend Simone Biles is my inspiration in quest to bring home Tokyo gold: Rhys McClenaghan

'I just keep my vision on the Games and bringing home gold and that's a very powerful thing'

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Rhys McClenaghan

Rhys McClenaghan

Rhys McClenaghan

The world may be coated in gloom but gymnastics star Rhys McClenaghan is only consumed by a golden vision of the Tokyo podium in 2021.

The prince of the pommel soared to world recognition when eclipsing Olympic champion Max Whitlock at the Commonwealth Games in 2018.

Now, despite the impact of Covid-19, he is determined to not only rule the world in Tokyo but give a performance that will live long in the memory of those who witness his gold medal-winning moment.

While the 20-year-old has an admirable overflowing, exuberant self-belief, he has also taken note of the manner in which USA superstar Simone Biles strides the world stage, leaving the paying public in awe of her multiple gold medal-winning displays.

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Simone Biles (AP)

Simone Biles (AP)

Simone Biles (AP)

"I want people to have a jaw-dropping moment at the end of my routine - to show I'm undeniably the best in the world. For all that is going on around us now, I just have the vision of a gold medal in Tokyo," said McClenaghan, who enjoyed a meeting with Olympic champion Biles at last year's World Championships.

"After the Worlds, Simone and her team were out relaxing and I got to meet her for the first time and she is such an incredibly positive person.

"It was great to chat with her because she is such an amazing athlete. Simone is so good that she could compete in men's events and make Finals and bring home medals.

"Her standards are something else. She has entered territory that nobody has been before and yet she still looks to improve and raise the bar. Simone could still be doing the same routines that she did in 2014 and that would be enough to win but instead she keeps pushing back the boundaries. She could fall three times and still win. Her team have a motto, 'Be Undeniable', and that's what she is - and that's what I want to be.

"No judge can deny Simone Biles the gold medal because of the routine she does and that is the kind of standard I'm striving for. Not even the coronavirus is going to stop me winning that gold medal and giving people a moment they will talk about for a long time."

If these days of self-isolation are tough on the whole country, McClenaghan admits he went through a similar traumatic period when in rehabilitation after shoulder surgery in November 2018.

Riding high as the Commonwealth Games and European gold medallist, McClenaghan came unstuck at the World Championships when he realised the injury in his shoulder, causing immense pain, had to be operated on. The rehabilitation lasted for six months, in which he had to go through some dark days.

"The process was very tough because I had never had surgery for a major injury before and for the whole of December I couldn't do anything. I couldn't leave the house and to be told I couldn't do any gymnastics, something I've done since I was eight-years-old, that was tough to take in. So much so, it was as if there was a chemical imbalance in my brain," said McClenaghan, who is coached at the National Sports Centre in Dublin by coach Luke Carson.

"It took time for my brain and body to adjust to, it was crazy. It did get a bit dark for me and it was draining because everything had come to a halt at a time when I had been performing so well.

"But my mentality made me hungry to come back stronger and I did everything that was asked of me once I could start the rehab in January last year. My mum and dad and my girlfriend were a great support to me, they helped me deal with the boredom, going through the simple exercises like raising my hand above my head with a 1kg dumbbell.

"Crucially, me and my coach Luke agreed that we could either get down about the situation or take advantage of the time and re-invent my pommel horse and that's what we did. It was a case of going back to basics and so we focused a lot on my execution of the routine. That paid off at last year's World Championships when I had the cleanest routine out of all the gymnasts, getting a score of nine."

In producing a fine routine, the Ards man also managed to land a bronze medal and his coveted place at the Tokyo Games, just five months after returning to the sport at the World Cup event in China, where he won silver.

"In China I just wanted to deal with those nervous doubts - those thoughts like, 'Will I be able to do gymnastics the same way? Will I perform the same way because of the time off?' When I landed, as far as I was concerned it was job done. I was back.

"By the time the World Championships came around I felt untouchable and I was getting that feeling from my whole support team. I could sense the confidence coming back."

Qualifying for the Games at such an early stage means even more now to the gifted gymnast, who until earlier this week had been able to continue training alone in Abbottstown, honing his programmes to perfection. Now he works at home.

"It was a bit weird just me and Luke in the arena. The first thing I always do is put on my music. I like to get the speakers blasting out my rap music as loud as they can. I like listening to Eminem, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. They get me ready to perform - my mood goes from zero to 10.

"I'm just glad that I've qualified for the Games because I know that some guys are still going through the process and I do feel for them because it is a very stressful time.

"Essentially I ultimately just keep my vision on the Games and bringing home that gold medal and that's a very powerful thing."

Belfast Telegraph