Athlete of the Month - Rhys McClenaghan, 16, from County Down

Sharing a podium with two of your sporting heroes at a senior championships is the stuff dreams are made of when you're just 16 years old. For Rhys McClenaghan, it was the real thing. Earlier this month, he took bronze in the men's pommel horse at the British Gymnastics Championships in Liverpool - finishing behind winner Max Whitlock and runner-up Louis Smith.
29 April, 2016
SSE

Sharing a podium with two of your sporting heroes at a senior championships is the stuff dreams are made of when you're just 16 years old. For Rhys McClenaghan, it was the real thing. Earlier this month, he took bronze in the men's pommel horse at the British Gymnastics Championships in Liverpool - finishing behind winner Max Whitlock and runner-up Louis Smith.

Rhys, who has received SportsAid awards from the SSE Next Generation programme, produced a stunning performance to score 15.175 at the Echo Arena - one of the highest ever by a junior - as he showed great maturity to handle the occasion with such professionalism.

"It was an incredible experience competing against two of my idols," said Rhys. "When I walked into the Echo Arena for the Pommel Final the crowd was huge! I was aware of people shouting my name when I stepped up to compete but it was down to business. I just blocked it all out.

"I was thinking during my routine that I just needed to perform like I'd done in training many times. When I saw my score come up I looked at my coach Luke Carson and just thought 'wow! Did that just happen?' I didn't think about a medal until later in the final when I saw the scores coming in.

"There was no pressure or expectation on me as I'm only 16. The pressure was all on the seniors as it was an Olympic qualifier for them. I was delighted that I had performed my routine well, like I knew I could, and was so happy with the score - the medal was a bonus."

Rhys is coached by Luke Carson, a former Commonwealth Games gymnast, at the Rathgael Gymastics club in Bangor. Carson wasn't surprised to see his protege Rhys take bronze at the British Gymnastics Championships and feels he has the ability to become a future Olympic champion.

"I truly believe he can become an Olympic champion in the future," said Carson. "It is not just me as his coach who thinks he has a big future ahead. Other renowned coaches have recognised his talent and Louis Smith and Max Whitlock also think he has great ability.

"When I started coaching Rhys it was clear he had talent and big skills, but he was also rugged and raw. He has progressed so well. To be on the podium with Louis and Max at 16 years of age is monumental and for me as a coach it trumped anything I did as a gymnast."

Rhys flew home from the British Gymnastics Championships on the Sunday and was back in classes at Regent House Grammar School in Newtownards the following morning. Having taken up the sport when he was seven, Rhys has always had to strike a balance with his studies.

"It was a little crazy," recalled Rhys. "Everyone was very nice to me and all the teachers said well done. It's been such a great experience. This is my GCSE year and my school have been so supportive. Balancing my sport with study is always difficult.

"It all makes me pretty good at time management. Every minute is accounted for. I currently train six days a week, 24+ hours. When I landed my dismount in the Masters Pommel Final in the Echo Arena I thought without a doubt it is absolutely worth it!"

Next up for Rhys is the Junior European Championships in Bern which clashes with his GCSEs during May. This is a major competition for Rhys and special arrangements have been made for him to sit four of his exams at the British Embassy in the Swiss city.

"I was delighted to get selected to compete at the Junior European Championships in Bern," said Rhys. "I am looking forward to this competition a lot - it's the big one for this year. I'm working extra hard in the gym now to perfect my routines."

Rhys has been supported by SportsAid and the SSE Next Generation programme in 2015 and 2016. Max and Louis both received SportsAid awards when they were younger and Rhys feels the funding and recognition has given him a real boost as he works towards his long-term aims.

"The minimum age for male Olympic gymnasts is 18 so Tokyo 2020's my big goal," said Rhys. "I am very proud to be a SportsAid and SSE Next Generation athlete. The fact Max and Louis both had SportsAid support shows how beneficial the programme is.

"I have been able to use my funding for travel expenses to competitions and training camps. This has been so beneficial for my preparations for this season. The support from social media has also been really important to me. It has really helped to raise my profile."

What will you do to #SupportTheNext generation of British sporting heroes? SportsAid needs your help to ensure talented athletes like Rhys can continue receiving the support they rely on. To donate, please text ‘NEXT01 £5’, ‘NEXT01 £10’ or as much as you can give to 70070.

PHOTO CREDIT - COLIN MAXWELL PHOTOGRAPHY

 

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