By Brendan O’Brien
Sports science has changed a lot. And cop on has played a part, too.
Footballers no longer eat steak and chips before a big game, GAA players don’t, or shouldn’t, spend months running up and down gloopy hills in the dark and freezing cold and most of us have a handle on the theory that less can sometimes add up to more.
Not every swimmer needs to plough through the pool morning, noon and night, studying for a degree part-time can be a better use of your evenings than an extra training session or video review and ‘tapering’ is firmly entrenched in the sector’s lexicon.
Still, there’s balance and there’s dangerous levels of inactivity.
Rhys McClenaghan has never been accused of taking it easy. It was an inability to sit still and his penchant for climbing trees that persuaded his mum that gymnastics might be a good idea. This is one teenager who’s never been spotted loitering about on street corners.
Imagine, then, the culture shock in June when his coach Luke Carson was made redundant by the Rathgael Gym due to the business’s financial difficulties and McClenaghan, on the back of insurance issues arising from that, was left with nowhere to train.
Gymnastics Ireland and Sport Ireland went into DEFCON 3 mode and soon secured digs and a new training base at the state-of-the-art Sport Ireland Institute for gymnast and coach in Dublin, but not before a few weeks passed and the then 18-year old had won a World Cup event in Turkey.
It was a stunning achievement: the second World Cup win on the pommel horse for a man who had already won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games this year, but the first claimed on the back of a traumatic build-up that reduced him to training in his own back garden.
“It just goes to show what type of gymnast I am,” he said late last month. “I think some people can crumble under that pressure and that expectation. I’m not one of those people. I can go to a competition with a huge amount of expectation and not with the best build-up.
“I didn’t do a pommel horse routine in three weeks leading up to that competition and that is not ideal by any means. Normally I’m doing hundreds in the build-up so I had to go for lower difficulty routines, water it down a little bit. Character won me that World Cup.”
McClenaghan travelled to Glasgow for this week’s multi-sport European Championships as one of Ireland’s best bets for a medal and he has demonstrated again that expectation adds up to little or no extra weight on those powerful shoulders.
The Newtownards man recorded a personal best score of 15.266 on the pommel horse in the artistic gymnastics qualifying round at the SSO Hydro on Thursday and finished the day in top spot. He will now be one of eight competing for a podium place in tomorrow’s final.
Team GB’s Max Whitlock, the Olympic champion who he pipped to that Commonwealth gold in Australia, is one of them.
It would be easy to just press on from here and relegate the Rathgael issue to the past but the truth of the matter is that the whole thing was traumatic. He said as much at the time, telling the BBC that it had affected him significantly and others besides.
“This is definitely a low point for gymnastics in Northern Ireland,” he said. The ripple effect was considerable. McClenaghan spoke about parents who had moved their kids to the Rathgael gym because of his presence. Those children had been devastated by his departure.
That’s heavy stuff for a teenager who has had to uproot from his home, his family and his friends at short notice and move to a new city. He touched on all that at the time too but the demands of elite sport can be a bulwark to external pressures, too.
McClenaghan is not some third-level student up in the Big Smoke for the first time. He doesn’t have hours of spare time on his hands. He lives in Dublin to train and he agrees that such a schedule and a focus on his sport has made the transition easier.
It’s paying off.