Olympic Gymnast Max Whitlock: Becoming a dad's made me even more motivated
Olympic gymnast Max Whitlock talks to Gabrielle Fagan about new parenthood, perspective and his goals for the future
EXERCISE is definitely a fun family affair in the Whitlock household right now. Double Olympic gold medallist Max is practising his gymnastic routines using the sofa, while his wife Leah chases after their one-year-old daughter Willow, who's trying to copy Daddy's moves.
He's been posting these living-room workouts, filmed at his Essex home, to encourage people to stay fit during isolation – and they've become a social media hit. "I think Willow's a big reason people love them," Whitlock says, beaming proudly.
Chatty and charming Whitlock, who's enjoyed huge success (he's a three-times world champion and ranked number one in the world), would normally have been competing in the trials for Tokyo 2020. But due to the pandemic, all events have been cancelled.
Instead, he's putting his efforts into trying to help boost "people's mental and physical wellbeing while they're housebound" and promoting his new book – The Whitlock Workout: Get Fit And Healthy In Minutes.
It's packed with user-friendly workout routines, nutrition tips and recipes, and down-to-earth advice on getting fitter.
"I'm really passionate about wanting to show people that just a little time every day can really make a difference to health and fitness," says Whitlock (27).
"I just think it's so sad that so many people get out of breath climbing stairs, or can't play a game of football with their kids," he adds. "These are exercises for everyone, which can easily be integrated into your life, don't require expensive kit or a gym membership, and could really help people move and feel better."
Here, Whitlock tells us more about how his daughter has changed his life, what keeps him motivated, and how training less is helping him win...
:: What's your biggest achievement?
"When I first held Willow, it was the proudest moment of my life, along with my wedding day. Forget winning Olympic and world titles! Results are so important to me – gym is what I've done since I was seven years old – but having a child is like nothing else and the feeling is crazy. Seeing her being born was a moment of pure, undiluted joy.
"I'm so excited about showing her the world and what I do, and I really wanted to be a young dad so she can see and remember me competing live and not just have to watch it back on videos years afterwards. She's made me even more motivated because I want her to see me win and be proud of me."
:: How do you find combining fatherhood with your sporting career?
"Parenthood's been pretty mad and full-on. Leah and I are both fairly young and it feels surreal to think we're parents. As first-timers, we've had to work it all out as we've gone along. Every small thing in Willow's development seems like the biggest thing in the world to us.
"We're so lucky Willow's a super-happy, easy-going little girl and she's inherited my love of sleep. I had three competitions and a major event within her first month and she's been here, there and everywhere with us and taken it in her stride.
"Having her has given Leah and me a perspective about what's really important, and that's actually had a hugely beneficial effect on my gymnastics. It's taken the pressure off because even if a session in the gym doesn't go quite go right, I know Leah and Willow are at home to make it all better. A big smile from my daughter when I walk in the door is guaranteed to stop me overthinking and dwelling on things."
:: What does Leah mean to you?
"Everything. I wouldn't be where I am today without her. We first met when I was 12 and moved to the same gymnastics club as her. I've gained a newfound respect for her since she had our daughter. Seeing her go through labour was one of the scariest feelings in the world but she was incredible.
"When I was training for the European Championships in Poland, Willow was only a month old and Leah did all the night-time shifts for three weeks, just so I could get proper rest and be fresh when I competed. I came back with a gold – and that's just one example of her unselfishness and the huge impact she's had on my career.
"As she's a gymnast and trainer she totally understands my life and is 100 per cent behind me. She helped me test out the exercises for the book and we're a total team."
:: How do you look after your health?
"I learnt so much from getting glandular fever in 2015, only a year away from the Olympic Games, when I literally went from being the fittest I'd ever been to it all deteriorating within a week. It lasted three months and I literally had to step back from the sport and rest, which was tough but a blessing in disguise. It forced me to really start listening to my body and, in doing that, hopefully lengthen my career.
"Since then I've changed to training smarter. Now it's about quality sessions, rather than focusing on quantity. I'm doing around 25 hours a week – 15 hours less than I was doing five years ago – because I can't put the same demands on my body that I did when I was younger. Training and recovery is harder as every year goes by but my targets are the same."
:: How do you look after your wellbeing?
"It's all too easy to feel unhappy or down a lot if you're only focused on one thing, like a sport. It's so intense and I've seen athletes devote every waking hour to training and not even take holidays. Balance is at the heart of my ethos and doing everything in moderation.
"Of course, I'm passionate about my sporting career but Leah and I also run our business, Max Whitlock Gymnastics, which is really fulfilling, and I love our family time with her and Willow.
"Those different levels in my life help me stay calm and chilled, which is really important for me. I've always tried to focus on enjoying the process of performing, not fixating on expectations, and letting the results take care of themselves."
:: Do you have any regrets?
"How could I have regrets? Of course, I've made mistakes in competitions over the years, but I prefer to learn from them and try to turn them into successes further down the line.
"Sometimes I can't believe how crazy my life has turned out. I've done more than I ever dreamt of in gymnastics and I'm now focused on competing in two more Olympics, if I can stay fit and injury-free. If I can still see room for improvement, I'll keep pushing myself to perform better and carry on doing what I love."
:: The Whitlock Workout: Get Fit And Healthy In Minutes by Max Whitlock, photography by Dan Jones, is published by Headline Home, priced £20.