Rhys McClenaghan lands Ireland's first ever European gymnastics gold
RHYS McClenaghan caused a sensation at the European Championships in Glasgow yesterday when he outdid a star-studded field in the men's pommel final to secure Ireland's first gold medal in European gymnastics history.
The Newtonards teenager finished 14th at last year's worlds in Montreal, but his fortunes have rocketed since, following his tight Commonwealth Games win on the Gold Coast with a thoroughly dominant display in Glasgow.
McClenaghan finished ahead of Croatia's Robert Seligman and Slovenia's Saso Beroncelj, as well as Britian's double Olympic champion Max Whitlock, who he had also defeated at the Commonwealths in Australia.
"It's incredible to be crowned European champion," said McClenaghan, whose gold was the first medal of any colour for Ireland in European gymnastics competition.
"It's been a dream to be in that final with so many great names whom I've looked up to since I started in gymnastics.
"The worlds is the next big goal. I said after the Commonwealth Games that my target is to get that world title and I meant it. I will go to Doha with every intention of winning that gold medal."
Double Olympic champion Whitlock had hoped to rebound from being beaten by McClenaghan at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, but instead found himself having to effectively restart his routine after an uncharacteristic error.
Whitlock, who at one point found himself stranded upright on top of the apparatus, scored 14.0, which at least avoided the ignominy of finishing last of the eight competitors, but 19-year-old McClenaghan was a class apart as he upped his leading qualification score to win with 15.3.
Instead, British gold came in the more unlikely form of Dominick Cunningham, whose faultless floor routine scored 14.666 and gave him the title over established names including Russia's Artur Dalaloyan and Artem Dolgopyat of Israel.
Birmingham's Cunningham, who is more widely considered a vault specialist, expressed his sympathy for Whitlock, with whom he has forged a close bond since joining him on the elite GB team.
"Max has got so much pressure on him," said Cunningham.
"He's never had that much pressure apart from Louis [Smith] growing up. It's killing him and maybe that's what you can see."
So often nerveless on the big occasion, not least in winning his first world crown in the same Hydro arena in 2015 and his two Olympic triumphs in Rio, Whitlock has seemed to be missing something as he struggles to recover momentum ahead of Tokyo 2020.
But the 23-year-old continues to cut a figure that is anything but frustrated, maintaining his confidence in the long-haul process towards defending his Olympic crown and denying the pressure of outside influences.
"It's just one of those days again and hopefully there won't be many more of them," said Whitlock, who had also missed an element in qualification and failed to reach the floor final which was won by Cunningham.
"I know people will look at it like I went to the Commonwealths and didn't get what I want, and I made a mistake here, but the second half of my routine was one of the cleanest I've ever competed, and with a new skill.
"I won't obsess about this. I'm in it for the long journey. I'm hoping to go to two more Olympic Games and many more major Championships. I will use this one as motivation and to push forward towards the next one."
Courtney Tulloch won a third medal for Great Britain with bronze in the men's rings behind world and Olympic champion Eleftherios Petrounias of Greece, and Turkey's Ibrahim Colak.