Never had the Olympic arena felt quite so cruel, and for Rhys McClenaghan the bruises will likely take some time to heal. The 22-year-old Newtownards man endured a crushing disappointment during his bid to win Ireland its first ever Olympic medal in gymnastics today, finishing seventh of eight competitors in the men’s pommel horse final in Tokyo.
McClenaghan went into the final as a leading contender, having breezed through qualification eight days ago with a score of 15.266, but his performance came undone early in his routine, McClenaghan losing his balance and falling off the pommel, thereby ending his medal chance.
After composing himself for a few moments, with some words of advice from his coach Luke Carson, he soon climbed back up but it was clear by then his confidence was rattled, and he narrowly avoided falling off a second time towards the end of his routine. Nonetheless he soldiered on, executing his final few skills to perfection, dismounting well and handed a score of 13.100.
His score was a tally of the difficulty score of his routine and its execution, and while McClenaghan had opted for a 6.400 for the former as expected, his typically excellent execution was off-kilter, earning him just 6.700.
The gold medal was won by Britain’s Max Whitlock with 15.583, with Chinese Taipei’s Chi Kai Lee taking silver with 15.400 and Kazuma Kaya bronze with 14.900. McClennaghan had scored 15.400 when winning bronze at the World Championships in 2019.
The performance was one that left him bitterly disappointed, given the calibre of performances he has consistently delivered in recent years. In 2019 he won Ireland’s first ever medal at the World Championships, and in 2018 he won European and Commonwealth Games gold in the same event, but surgery on a torn labrum in his shoulder towards the end of that year led to McClenaghan rebuilding his technique from scratch together with long-time coach Luke Carson.
Injuries came back to haunt him again in 2021, McClenaghan enduring bitter disappointment at the Europeans back in April when struggling with cartilage damage in his wrist, but he suggested on the build-up to the Olympics that such issues were long behind him.
His first Olympics will be remembered as one that got away. But the 22-year-old will almost certainly come again.
Afterwards, speaking to RTÉ, McClenaghan put a brave face on his disappointment.
"I know that I’ll feel disappointment with this performance but that’s ok, I feel like when I do feel disappointment, that’s when I’m more motivated than ever, I’m more hungry than ever.
"I’m definitely the type of person to turn a negative into a positive and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to leave this arena with this incredible experience, becoming an Olympian, becoming first Irish gymnast to be an Olympic finalist and that is something very special to me.
“I will be more hungry. This is a very early chapter in my gymnastics career. It didn’t go my way today. One finger placement is all it took for me to knock me off the horse. That’s the finest margins that are in this game.
“I know I’ll come back a way better gymnast, a way better man."
Speaking to media later, he added:
"I was disappointed with my performance today. It could have gone a lot better of course, just that one finger got caught under the handle. That one finger got caught, and that’s the finest of margins in gymnastics, where that one finger placement wrong can throw you off course. It’s the beauty of the sport as well, the fact that it makes it so exciting. I’m excited to get back out there and just be better than ever.
"I want to continue to raise the bar, be the first in a lot more things. Break down those barriers for the younger generation coming through, behind me, and surpass my achievements hopefully. That’s one of the main reasons I’m doing this sport, I’m proud to be here and proud to be an Olympian."