Rubbing shoulders with Britain’s Olympic heroes is an opportunity most can only dream of, but for SSE Next Generation gymnast Rhys McClenaghan that dream became a reality at the recent SportsAid SportsBall.
On the 25 November, McClenaghan joined Olympic medallists such as Mo Farah, Heather Stanning, Louis Smith and Lutalo Muhammad in celebrating SportsAid's 40th anniversary at our annual SportsBall in the London.
SportsAid helps young athletes in the critical early stages of their careers, with more than 1,100 athletes currently receiving their support, and the charity’s alumni won 150 medals at the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer.
The 17-year-old, who lives in Newtownards, was one of four athletes on the SSE Next Generation athlete support programme to be invited to the black tie event, and after showing off his skills on a pommel horse, McClenaghan admits it was a night he will never forget.
“I feel really privileged to be at the SportsAid SportsBall. It feels very good to be selected for this event,” he said.
“Knowing that those athletes came from a SportsAid background and seeing how successful they’ve been reassures me that I’m on the right track.
“For example Louis Smith, he was funded by SportsAid and he’s one of the most successful gymnasts that has ever lived. So knowing that, it really reassures me that I’m on the right track.
“I just got a phone call saying they were going to hire a pommel horse and I thought great! I can show what I’ve been practising for the last ten years and have some fun.”
McClenaghan is one of 100 up-and-coming athletes to be supported by the SSE Next Generation programme, which provides vital funding as well as media training and mentoring from elite sportsmen and women.
And the European silver medallist admits the scheme’s support has been pivotal in getting him to where he is now, and he is grateful for the opportunities they continue to offer him.
“Since the SSE Next Generation programme has been supporting me, I’ve gained so much experience and it really has made me have a different look on the sporting world in general,” he said.
“I’ve met athletes my age from different sports and it’s made me open my eyes to see what the real sporting world is really about.
“It’s helped me a huge amount financially and allowed me to gain so much experience in the two years they’ve supported me. Being invited to events has been a huge experience for me and I’m really grateful to be part of it.”