Magnificent Max Whitlock

PUBLISHED: 12:55 17 October 2016 | UPDATED: 12:55 17 October 2016

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As current World Champion and now two-time Olympic gold medallist, Max Whitlock has returned from Rio a national hero. Here he tells Essex Life about his journey to the top of the podium, which began in a little-known Essex gymnasium

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With five Olympic medals, Max Whitlock is the most decorated Olympic gymnast in British history and the first ever British person to win an Olympics gymnastics gold (quickly followed by a second), and yet the 23-year-old who has a reputation for being painfully shy is endearingly earnest and shows no sign of letting his glory go to his head.

‘I’ve tried to keep it as normal as possible,’ says Max. ‘When I was at school, I used to get out of school three times a week at noon to go and train. There are obviously a lot of sacrifices and commitment, but the reason I did it was because I loved it,’ he replies when asked about the difficult choices he had to make in order to reach such dizzying heights.

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Born in Hemel Hempstead, Max showed an early flair for the sport, training at the Sapphire School of Gymnastics from the age of six. But it was only after he moved to the South Essex Gymnastics Club in Basildon and met his coach Scott Hann that things really began to take shape and gymnastics went from being a hobby to a serious career option.

Essex-born Scott has proved to be instrumental in Max‘s success and has often spoken about his protégé’s quiet and dogged dedication, telling The Guardian that even in early competitions, Max would always turn up, ‘with a lovely smile on his face’ going on to say: ‘Win lose or draw he’d have the same smile. You know that poem – “if you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same…”? Max didn’t need to learn that skill, he already had it.’

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When considering the young Olympian, who, as recently as London 2012 was only thought of as a junior member of the team and not expected to be a medal contender, it’s important to remember how significant his achievements are.

Britain first took part in Olympic gymnastics back in 1908, when Walter Tysall claimed silver at the London Summer Games men’s all-around final. Since then we have gathered a grand total of eight medals in 108 years, but never a gold in artistic gymnastic.

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But in Rio, just like London buses, two came along at once in Max’s own personal gold rush, with victory in the men’s floor followed just hours later with his second Olympic gold medal of the day, pipping British team-mate Louis Smith in the men’s pommel horse.

Team GB’s achievements in Rio mark the beginning of what is certainly a new era for the sport in Britain, with Max taking his duty as a role model very seriously. ‘What’s great about my club, South Essex, is that we also go back there if we’ve done well and they set up a homecoming for us with everyone from the gym, so we’ve got about 2,000 kids and loads of parents and staff, and we all celebrate together so that’s great to come back to,’ Max says proudly. ‘Also, by doing that it can inspire the younger guys at the club to go on and do what we’ve done.’

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No doubt he received a hero’s welcome walking back through the doors of the club, who have reported a huge increase in membership enquiries since the Olympics, with the head coach Matt Jackson explaining: ‘Since 2012 the club went crazy, we had to employ new staff, start new groups of children. With Rio it’s only going to be the same again, the phones are already ringing with people wanting to sign up to start new classes.’

Despite his success, Max’s rise hasn’t all been plain sailing. Last year he suffered an acute bout of glandular fever so debilitating he had to pull out of the European Championships. Clearly respite is not in his nature and he describes the experience, with visible frustration, as ‘tough’ and ‘incredibly stressful’ but says that ultimately it galvanised him to further success.

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‘All I needed was rest. So I had three weeks out completely, didn’t even set foot inside the gym, and actually that made me more motivated and ready to get back and train even more,’ Max explains. ‘It really did push me. I actually see it as a blessing in disguise because if I was going to get it, that was probably the best time I could have got it. It pushed me to go harder and helped me perform like I performed in Glasgow at the World Championships [winning a gold medal — the first British man ever to do so — and two silvers].’

Following the phenomenal overall success of Team GB in Rio, it will be interesting to see which of the athletes will go on to become fully fledged celebrities, like Max’s teammate, Louis Smith, who, following his storming performance in the 2012 games, became a TV personality and was even crowned king of Strictly Come Dancing.

Max appears reluctant to bask in his glory and is determined to keep his focus firmly on the future as well as upcoming tournaments with intent to add further to his already impressive list of accolades, which include being Commonwealth Champion, World Champion and European Champion. As coach Scott puts it: ‘He’s not interested in partying, he’s not interested in self-promotion.’

One party he will be attending in the forthcoming months however, is his wedding to fellow gymnast and partner of nine years, Leah Hickton, whom he proposed to earlier this year. Then of course there is preparation to do for Tokyo 2020, where the pressure will be on. Typically, Max takes it all in his stride, remaining focused and calm, safe in the knowledge that all he can ever do is put his best foot forward.

‘It’s all about what happens on the day, so I’ve just got to keep going, keep training really hard and if I can go there and perform a clean routine and do well for the team, that’s my only aim. If I can do that, then obviously I’ll be happy.’

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