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Ireland's McClenaghan Living 'Dream Come True' in Baku
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IG Online's traditional coverage of Irish gymnastics on St. Patrick's Day continues with this update on rising Irish star Rhys McClenaghan, 17, Junior European championships silver medalist on pommel horse.

IG Online's traditional coverage of Irish gymnastics on St. Patrick's Day continues with this update on rising Irish star Rhys McClenaghan, 17, Junior European championships silver medalist on pommel horse.

In Baku for his first World Cup event, Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan, 17, will be celebrating St. Patrick's Day on Friday by doing what he perhaps does best.

"St. Patrick's Day will be celebrated by doing my pommel routine! What better way?!" he told IG.

McClenaghan will compete in the pommel horse qualifications on Friday at the AGF Trophy, an FIG World Challenge Cup event. The pommels lineup includes world and Olympic champion Krisztián Berki (Hungary), Olympic silver medalist Filip Ude (Croatia), 2015 European Games champion Sašo Bertoncelj (Slovenia) and Naoto Hayasaka, a member of Japan's gold medal-winning squad at the 2015 World Championships.


McClenaghan found a surprise welcome in Baku in the brilliant emerald green pool at the hotel. (Photo courtesty @rhysmcc1 on Instagram.)

"Andrew Smith, my teammate, is also competing on pommel so we can represent the Irish flag on St. Patrick's Day," McClenaghan said.

McClenaghan, who turns 18 on July 21, was born in Antrim, Northern Ireland. He trains at the Rathgael Gymnastics Club in Bangor, where he is coached by former Irish standout Luke Carson. (McClenaghan, like all Northern Irish citizens, holds both British and Irish citizenship and is eligible to compete for either country in athletic events.)

McClenaghan had an outstanding year in 2016 that boosted his confidence going into 2017. He made history for Irish gymnastics at the Junior European championships in Bern, becoming the first Irish gymnast to qualify for an all-around final at a European championships, and then winning the silver medal on pommel horse – Ireland's first ever medal at a European championships.

McClenaghan competed as a guest gymnast in the junior ranks at the 2016 British Championships, where he qualified for the Master's Final on pommel horse. (The Master's Final features the top gymnasts from both senior and junior age groups competing in one combined event final.) He picked up the bronze medal behind pommel horse giants Max Whitlock and Louis Smith, who went on to take gold and silver, respectively, at the Olympics in Rio last summer.

"2016 was a hugely successful year for me and I gained a huge amount of experience from that year," he recalled. "I finish every year by looking back on what I have achieved or learned throughout the year, and after each year as a gymnast I gain a huge amount of experience, more than I could expect. 2016 certainly opened my eyes, and showed me that I could be the best. I believe that I can be."

Now in 2017, he's joining the senior scene for the first time in Baku.

"It truly is a dream come true for me," he said. "From such a young age I always aspired to be an elite gymnast competing with the best in the world, and I can finally say I am doing that. I don't get to see a lot of senior gymnasts training in Ireland so it's refreshing, and I can learn a lot from the way that they compete and train. I have realised now from being at this world cup in Baku that I still have a lot to learn to progress."

McClenaghan frequently posts training videos on social media, some with jaw-dropping moves on pommel horse. The social media shares are helping get name recognition not just for himself but for Irish gymnastics.

"I like to share videos for everybody in the gymnastics community to see," he said. "It gets my name known and opens people's eyes to what an Irish gymnast can do. Gymnastics in Ireland is progressing very quickly, especially with the new National Indoor Training Centre. This is even more reason for me to share my progress and get my name and country noticed in the world of gymnastics. I am capable of doing one of the most difficult pommel horse routines in the world, although it is not perfected so there is still a lot of work needed to be put into my training."

Pommel horse may be his specialty, but McClenaghan is no pommel horse specialist, and he still has his eyes on the all-around. On Thursday, McClenaghan competed parallel bars in Baku during the first day of qualification.

"Of course pommel horse is still my strongest piece of apparatus, but I will always aim to be an all-around gymnast," he said. "I will compete all six apart throughout this whole year and stand out as an all-around gymnast and not only a pommel worker."

Despite his excitement, McClenaghan is taking a pragmatic approach to his first year as a senior. His goals for next month's European championships in Cluj and October's world championships in Montreal are "simply to gain experience," he said. "No other thoughts are going through my head other than gaining experience from these major competitions."

Gymnastics in Ireland may be booming but the team is not likely to qualify a full team to the next Olympic Games in Tokyo. McClenaghan will be looking to qualify as an individual, a feat accomplished by only two other Irish male gymnasts: Barry McDonald in 1996 and Kieran Behan in 2012 and 2016. With the FIG's new rules, the World Cup series will begin to be included as part of the Olympic qualification process for individuals for 2020. With Rio in the rearview mirror and attention turned to Tokyo, McClenaghan is not counting his luck, but taking it one meet at a time.

"Every gymnast's goal is to get to the 2020 Olympics," he said. "I wouldn't be human if I didn't see the Olympics as a major goal. Although, at the end of the day [Baku] is another competition, which I need to go and do my job at."

Follow McClenaghan on Instagram here and on YouTube here.

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