The Olympic stage can shred the nerves of many, but Rhys McClenaghan has no doubt he is ready to deliver an Oscar-winning performance.
The Prince of the Pommel, who turns 22 this Wednesday, says he is relishing the chance of being part of an event to remember when he goes head-to-head with the best in the world – including defending Olympic champion Max Whitlock.
Ards man McClenaghan shocked Whitlock three years ago in the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast when striking gold. It was his execution that gave McClenaghan the edge when they finished on the same points, and he is happy to embrace the fact it will take the perfect performance in Tokyo to come away with gold.
“I believe this is going to be the most exciting pommel horse Final that has ever happened. I want everyone to do their best… I’ve had almost the perfect build-up to this and taking on the best in the world is an opportunity I’ve always wanted,” said McClenaghan, speaking exclusively to Sunday Life Sport.
“Max Whitlock is obviously going to be a big threat… I proved I could beat him in 2018. You also have Lee Chih Kai of Taipei who got silver at the World Championships in 2019 and China will always have an amazing team.
“When I look back to the videos of my performance at the Commonwealth Games I can see how much I have developed. My body is stronger, everything has improved, and my career has sky-rocketed since then when you consider the bronze medal at the Worlds.
“I’m feeling very confident, and I take that confidence from the preparation I’ve had. I just have to perform the way I have been in training.
“There’s obviously a lot of excitement around… my mum and dad have been bombarded with messages from people saying they can’t wait to watch the Final. I know that feeling, of being a fan watching with pride as Rory McIlroy and Carl Frampton proved they were the best in the world. That’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly… I want to make people proud and to inspire the next generation.”
McClenaghan also knows just what an impact the Games spectacle can have on a young aspiring athlete as he recalls London 2012 where Louis Smith starred for Team GB and won the silver medal on the pommel – despite having the same score as gold medalist Krisztián Berki of Hungary.
Smith has been an inspiration to McClenaghan and the Northern Ireland youngster believes the current exploits of American superstar Simone Biles will have an impact on the next generation of gymnasts.
“I went to London for the opening ceremony which was a great experience and while I was there I saw how much hype there was around Louis. There were big posters all around London and the fact he was able to be cool, calm and collected and pull off the routine of his life was a great inspiration to me as a 12-year-old. I’ve watched that routine hundreds of times,” said McClenaghan.
“He has inspired a lot of people and it’s the same with Simone Biles. She’s the greatest female gymnast of all time and it’s always an inspiration to see how far ahead of the field she is. It’s a privilege to be in the same era as her.”
McClenaghan’s incredible rise on the world scene took a bump in the road at this year’s European Championships when he suffered a fall in the Final but revealed how injury caught up with him at a crucial moment in Basel.
“Unfortunately, the day before we headed out to the Europeans, I hurt my left wrist. With what I do every percentage makes a difference. Thank goodness there was no big damage but the inflammation caused a problem and there is so much pressure going through the wrists that it led to the fall. It was unfortunate but it happens in sport,” added McClenaghan, who has been training in Dublin with coach Luke Carson.
“There has been no issue with it since. My strength, endurance and skills are better than ever. Luke sets a very accurate programme that I have followed and there haven’t been any days when he has felt the need to adjust it which is a very good sign. It has been similar to the build-up to the Worlds in 2019.
“Luke has even woken me up a few times at 4.30am to adjust to Tokyo time and I’ve still produced good routines. That just adds to my confidence.
“It’s been strange training on my own in the gym because usually you are surrounded by gymnasts but that’s the world we’re in at the moment. I’ve used it to my advantage, helping me to focus even more. I’m there to do a job because this is my profession. It’s about me giving 100% every day and that’s what I’ve done so I know I’m ready for this.”