New wave of gymnasts set to challenge traditional powers

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              Bronze medalist Rhys McClenaghan of Ireland celebrates after his performance on the pommel horse in the men's apparatus finals at the Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
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STUTTGART, Germany (AP) — From his back garden to the world championship podium, Rhys McClenaghan has come a long way.

McClenaghan became the first gymnast to represent Ireland in a world championship final on Saturday. Winning bronze on the pommel horse made him Ireland’s first medalist.

He’s part of a new wave of gymnasts from countries with little history in the sport now challenging the traditional powers. Growing up in Northern Ireland, where athletes can choose to represent either Britain or Ireland at the Olympics, gymnastics was a very niche choice.

“When I say I’m creating history, I don’t mean it for myself. I mean it for the whole gymnastics nation in Ireland, and it’s exciting,” McClenaghan said. “Even when I was in school, when I say I’m a gymnast, it’s unheard of. The first question is ‘Why aren’t you doing rugby?'”

On Monday, he secured an Olympic spot with his qualifying score.

“The future’s big for me,” he said. “I called up my mum as soon as I heard I was going to the Olympics and I cried like a baby, I really did. That was the childhood dream come true.”

As a child, McClenaghan practiced on a pommel horse in his garden. He did that again last year when his local gym ended his coach’s contract, though they stayed together and soon relocated to train in the Irish capital, Dublin.

It’s not just Ireland. There’s Turkey, the Philippines, Taiwan and Mexico too.

Around the world, gymnastics is taking hold in new countries ahead of next year’s Olympics.

There’s the Philippines, celebrating its first world champion in Carlos Yulo in floor exercise. With gymnastics deep in the shadow of basketball in his country, Yula had to move to Japan to train.

He’s hoping his gold medal will grow the sport back home. “Filipinos, they like basketball, but we’re small,” he joked, suggesting gymnastics was a better fit.

Taiwan and Israel both matched their best world championship showings with silver medals on Saturday. Turkey has gone from also-ran to medal contender thanks to the likes of Ibrahim Colak, who became the country’s first world champion Saturday on rings.

“This is our history,” Colak said. “Turkey is coming, just wait.” Turkey could add more medals with two athletes in Sunday’s parallel bars final.

The landscape is changing faster in the men’s events than on the women’s side, where traditional powers like the United States, Canada and Russia have a tighter hold on the podium.

Still, Belgium’s Nina Derwael won her country’s first world title last year on the uneven bars and retained it Saturday, while Mexico’s Alexa Moreno made history with a bronze medal on the vault in 2018.

Qualifying for the Olympics will be a big step for many of gymnastics’ rising powers, but their athletes have shown their ambitions don’t stop there.

Even in his country’s first world championship final, McClenaghan thought he could have done better than bronze.

“I know where my standards are,” he said. “I know that I could go out there and get the gold medal. Of course, I’m standing here with the first-ever Irish bronze medal around my neck. It’s unbelievable.”