Fifteen-year old Rhys McClenaghan from Bangor in Co Down is one of Ireland’s rising gymnastic stars. A strong all-rounder with a particular flair for the pommel horse, he has set his sights on making the Irish team for the European Youth Olympics in Tbil
Q: So, why gymnastics and when did you start?
I’m at it eight years now, ever since I was seven. It always attracted me. I was a very active kid, climbing frames and things like that from when I was really young. There is a picture of me at home on the fridge as a two or three-year old and I am hanging from a chin-up bar. Even my primary school teachers used to tell my mum that I should do gymnastics. My auntie was a gymnast and my dad as well so it must have been in the family. I didn’t see them compete, but dad would take me out on to the trampoline when I was younger.
Q: Did you ever try your hand at any other sports?
Yeah, I played every sport imaginable and I was good at most of them as a lot of people are who are able to compete at a high level in one sport. Football, swimming, I tried them all, but I had to give them up when I was seven to concentrate on gymnastics. I knew then that gymnastics was what I wanted to concentrate on.
Q: Seven? That’s very young for a decision that big, isn’t it?
It is, but it is a sport that you have to work every day at. You’ll find that very few gymnasts start at a late age. Most start a lot younger than I did actually. They would have been brought to the gym at three or maybe four by their parents. By the age of five or six they get down to work.
Q: It seems like a sport that can have real benefits for athletes in other areas, is it?
Definitely. Daniel Keatings, the GB gymnast, only started because he was a kick-boxer and he tried gymnastics because he wanted to be more flexible. He was seven or eight years of age at the time so a lot of people do that. My coach is Luke Carson. He is a gymnast as well and he competed internationally for Ireland. He has got a lot of five and six year olds training now who were just doing recreational classes when they started off in the gym. That’s really nice to see. It’s the same route I took. I like to try and help them if I can, give them some hints or tips.
Q: The wise old man of the gym at 15, eh? How long does your average gymnastics career last?
It varies depending on the discipline. For what I do the average age would be about 19 to 24 for men. That would be a peak for me.
Q: What’s been your career highlight so far?
There hasn’t been any one single highlight, but every time I get selected for Ireland reassures me that I am progressing at a high level. It’s an honour to do that. I’m progressing such a massive amount at the moment and it’s down to the coaching I get and just working hard. You need to get better scores every time you compete. It’s not a sport you can do half-heartedly.
Q: So, what’s the focus for you this year?
The European Youth Olympics Festival is in Tbilisi, starting in late July, and that is definitely my focus. That’s all I’ve been thinking about this year, pushing for higher scores all the time. My most recent competition was in Switzerland and I scored 14.5 on the pommel. That score would have won the gold medal at the last European Youths so I take confidence in that. I know that I can make the podium. The Olympics Games in Tokyo 2020 is the long-term goal for me.
Q: Did seeing Kieran Behan wear an Irish singlet in London in 2012 make that ambition seem more achievable?
It did. It makes it seem more possible. I believe it will be possible for Ireland to have a gymnastics team in Tokyo in 2020. We’re building up so much now as a sport, getting better all the time. Three weeks ago we competed at the Celtic Cup and we won team gold. We knew before we competed that we would get it because the standards have gone so high.
Q: You’re not your average 15-year old, so what are your friends doing with their time?
They’re going out, playing football, things like that. They have plenty of free time on their hands though. I had a weekend off there a while back when the gym was shut down —there was a problem with the lights or something like that. It was the most boring time of my life, so every time I think I want time off I just think back to that weekend.
Q: It can’t be easy though with sport and school both demanding your time, can it?
It is very hard to balance it all between the gym and school. I’m doing two GCSEs this year and my main ones then are next year, so it can be difficult trying to fit in the gym with revision. I go straight to the gym from school. I go home from there, get dinner and go to bed. And repeat. You are always on your toes. You have to get enough sleep and I eat a healthy, balanced diet between protein and carbs. I need a lot of protein to help with muscle recovery after sessions. I’ve had lots of competitions lately as well, just with the way the schedule has been. The Irish Nationals this weekend are the last competition for a while though so that will give me time to work on some new routines.
Q: It doesn’t sound easy, but you get to do what you love, right?
Exactly. I’m living the dream. I don’t care if people think I am wasting my time or if I’m wasting anyone else’s time. I’m going to do this as long as I can. PHOTOGRAPH: Stephen Hamilton
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved