In a superb Olympics for Great Britain, the achievements of Max Whitlock have arguably outstripped the lot. Everyone is talking about gymnastics: not only the 10.4 million BBC viewers who crossed their fingers throughout Whitlock’s pommel-horse routine, but also the other athletes in Rio. “It’s amazing what these guys can do with their bodies,” said Andy Murray on Sunday night.
What makes Whitlock’s pair of gold medals still more remarkable is that he has been plagued by ill-health since contracting glandular fever in the spring of 2015. As his coach Scott Hann told Telegraph Sport on Monday, the illness seriously restricted their preparation in the build-up to these Games.
“Some people have glandular fever for years,” said Hann, “and Max is still not fully over that. We’ve had to be very, very clever with his training – especially as he was the only one who had to do all six apparatus for the British team. That was such a hard ask and still being slightly fatigued at times was a real task.
“When he first fell ill, he was absolutely on fire, as fit as he’d ever been. He literally came in and, over three days, it just got worse and worse and he could not get through a routine. He was getting really, really upset, because he just didn’t know what was happening.
“At first, we were told it was mental fatigue, which was just ridiculous. After some tests, it turned out that he had glandular fever.”
As recently as May, Whitlock suffered another bout of high temperatures. At the time, he claimed it was not a relapse. But the upshot was that he had to skip the European Championships and also missed a couple of weeks of training.
“It’s really frustrating because this is one thing you can’t push through,” said Whitlock at the time. “The only thing is rest, which is really annoying for an athlete, because you want to push as hard as possible with the competitions coming up.”
This adversity may have been a factor in the fractional error Whitlock made in the team final, allowing his legs to come apart as he passed his body under the parallel bars. Since then, however, he has been virtually flawless in claiming the all-around bronze last Monday, followed by Sunday’s twin golds on floor and pommel horse. But Hann acknowledges that preparing Whitlock for his big Olympic moment was a close-run thing.
“We weren’t going to let the glandular fever ruin it,” said Hann. “I do believe it could have done. It was really difficult because, if this fatigue came, Max had to stop. We had to change the days that he was doing his routines, and we sometimes went a week without doing them. It was stressful.
“We’ve trained clever. I had to trust the process, I had to trust Max, I had to trust what we’d done for the last 15 years, and that’s all I kept telling myself – even if I was going to my room pulling my hair out. I had to stay calm for Max. In the gym, he doesn’t do as much as everybody else and he trains with scruffy legs. But Max’s forte is the ability to compete.”
Whitlock runs a tight ship. The first alcoholic drink he had tasted all year was the caipirinha – a Brazilian cocktail – he celebrated with on Sunday night, in a small victory party with friends and family in the athletes’ village. “I had a little one,” he said yesterday, “but it was more about getting together with my parents. I’m looking forward to watching Nile [Wilson, the up-and-coming 20-year-old who competes in the high-bar final this evening]. After that, we can celebrate together.”
Whitlock’s life has revolved around gymnastics since he first dropped into the Sapphire club in Hemel Hempstead, aged seven, to show off his untaught ability to walk on his hands.
At 12, he went so far as to follow his first coach – a Slovenian named Klemen Bedenik – back to his home town of Maribor, spending three months living there because he did not get on with Bedenik’s successor at Sapphire.
Whitlock’s parents were uncomfortable with this solution, however. They suggested that he should come home but move to the South Essex club in Basildon, where Hann has been his coach ever since.
The move had a downside – his mother Madeleine had to go through the hour-long commute almost every day for nine years. But it has paid off brilliantly. Not only is Whitlock now Great Britain’s first gymnastics gold medallist, but he is also engaged to Leah Hickton, another Basildon-based gymnast whom he met when they were both 14 and who happens to be Hann’s sister-in-law.
“This makes it all worth it,” said Whitlock of his medals yesterday. “I feel complete. I’ve got a gold medal in every major championships now, which feels incredible. I feel motivated after every major and I’ve never been more so now. I’m not done.
“I still feel like I can improve my floor and pommel. It’s always been my dream to get my own move on pommel horse” – a combination that would simply be called The Whitlock – “and that will take a long time. But first I’m looking forward to having a nice holiday. I’m going away with South Essex [gymnastics club] for five, six days. We’re going to Portugal – it’s a gym camp but I won’t be taking my gym gear.”
Interest in gymnastics increases after Whitlock’s success
It was forced to add 10 new classes after London 2012 and now Max Whitlock’s gymnastics club is having to open a whole new wing thanks to his amazing exploits at the Rio Olympics.
Basildon’s South Essex Gymnastics Club has encountered unprecedented demand from those wanting to take up the sport, according to its director of coaching, who is also Whitlock’s personal coach and soon-to-be brother-in-law.
Sunday saw Whitlock win two gold medals inside an hour, becoming Great Britain’s first Olympic champion in gymnastics in the process.
The 23-year-old will also take home a bronze to add to the two he won as a teenager four years ago, including Britain’s first team medal for 100 years.
“Since London, Max’s results have just rocketed the interest in the club,” Scott Hann told the Daily Telegraph.
“From London, we had to put on an extra 10 classes to cope with demand.
“This time, we’ve got bigger demand but we’re not in a position to take it on at the moment. So, we’re actually trying to open another building so that we can give people the opportunity to get in the gym.”
Hann, married to the sister of Whitlock’s fiancée and with him in Rio, revealed gym members watched together the historic moment at which their biggest star made history.
Comparing the atmosphere to that of a “football match”, he added: “I can’t believe the support. I’m so overwhelmed, and so is Max, by the amount of people who were watching and making a special arrangement to go round each other’s houses or to a venue and watch it.
“Everybody’s gone mad. I think everyone’s famous now. I think everybody’s done a piece of media, everybody’s been on the telly, everybody’s been on the radio.
“It’s been fantastic for the club and for people who have supported him all of this journey.
“For us, Max is a home-grown boy and the club’s just phenomenally proud, phenomenally proud, and Max and I are proud to be associated with such a fantastic organisation of people.”
Hann revealed a “homecoming” party was planned in line with that organised four years ago before Whitlock embarks on a training camp with around 40 youngsters from the club with the aim of using his success to inspire the next generation.
He is expected to be joined by fellow SEGC graduates and Team GB team-mates Brinn Bevan and Nile Wilson, who Hann tipped to lead the country to more glory in Tokyo and beyond.
“There are some phenomenal British gymnasts,” he said. “And there are lots of young guys coming through.
“We’re in a really good position with British gymnastics and, with the club, we’re doing everything we can.
“And we’ve got some fantastic young girls coming through now who we hope are going to make the team and make a difference.
“I’m so proud of my club and everything the guys in there are doing. They’re exceptional people.”