Rhys McClenaghan targets Olympics gymnastics medals for Ireland

Rhys McClenaghan targets Olympics gymnastics medals for Ireland

Within hours of eclipsing double Olympic champion Max Whitlock to claim gymnastics gold at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, 18-year-old Northern Irishman Rhys McClenaghan was making his long-term intentions abundantly clear.

"I'm coming for that world title next, Max," roared McClenaghan in a Twitter post which the Newtownards native admits appeared to rub some of his rivals up the wrong way - though not, it must be said, the magnanimous Whitlock.

Two weeks later the post remains proudly pinned to the top of McClenaghan's social media account, offering the tacit promise that there will be plenty more similar proclamations to come.

"I think most people took it in the way it was intended," said McClenaghan, who, as Northern Ireland's only gold medallist at the Games, returned home to find himself transformed into an instant celebrity in County Down.

"Maybe a couple of people thought it was disrespectful but I have got the utmost respect for Max. I put it out there to let people know that I'm here and what my intentions are."

McClenaghan edged Whitlock on their favoured pommel apparatus by virtue of a higher execution score after the pair had finished locked together on 15.100 points.

It was quite a declaration of intent by the teenager who, hampered by three undiagnosed stress fractures in his wrist, had finished 14th at the World Championship in Montreal in October, where Whitlock cruised to his second straight title.

Whitlock himself admitted in the aftermath of his shock defeat that he would return to the gym re-emboldened to repel the threat posed by McClenaghan, with their rivalry set to be renewed at the European Championships in Glasgow in August.

Longer term, McClenaghan will aim to become only the fourth gymnast to qualify to represent Ireland at an Olympic Games, with success at Tokyo 2020 now a tantalising possibility given his steep trajectory towards the top of the sport.

"Recently we (Ireland) have had some gymnasts who have done a tremendous job to qualify and participate in the Olympics but I don't want to go there to do just that - that time is over," McClenaghan told Press Association Sport.

"They broke the doors down for Irish gymnastics but now I want to break down doors further down the chain, and go to the Olympics to make finals and win medals."

Just eight years old when one of his gymnastics idols, Louis Smith, reached his maiden Olympic podium in 2008, McClenaghan has known nothing other than domestic success on his chosen apparatus, and dreams of shifting that balance of power across the Irish Sea.

"I always knew I could be up there with the best in the world. I was hitting my routines in training but pulling it off on the big stage is something else," added McClenaghan.

"It's the ability to do that that defines a champion. Louis inspired the likes of Max and myself when he went out and won that first bronze and now it's a great feeling to be the new kid on the block."

- PA

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