“Last year was a massive learning curve for me,” says Hemel Hempstead ace Max Whitlock as he takes time out of his busy training schedule to give us an insight on what truly promises to be a year to remember.
And it’s fair to say that returning from glandular fever to win gold in the pommel horse at the World Gymnastics Championships is certainly somewhat of a learning curve.
The 23-year-old has become synonymous with the incredible rise of British gymnastics over the last five years – from winning two bronze medals at London 2012, to being nominated twice for BBC Sports Personality of the Year, and capping it off by becoming the first British man ever to win a World Championships gold medal. It’s been a meteoric rise to the top from a young man now considered to be one of the UK’s most influential people by the revered social handbook Debrett’s. Not bad for a lad from Adeyfield.
But this year could be the greatest yet for former Longdean School pupil Max, with the Rio Olympics on the horizon; a competition in which he is hotly tipped as one of Great Britain’s top gold medal prospects. But, as we have come to expect from this cool customer, he is taking everything in his stride as he prepares to compete for the second time at what many consider to be the pinnacle of world sport.
“The World Championships was a huge target for me so to go and win gold was brilliant in front of that crowd,” Max told us. “Every result that I’ve had in the last four or five years has kept me pushing on and believing what is possible, and it has made my targets even bigger.
“It definitely gives me a lot of confidence, and actually helps to calm me knowing that I have got those results behind me.
“It’s amazing to think what the potential could be for the Olympics but sport is sport and it’s all about what happens on the day. I’ve just got to go there and be as ready as possible and do my best, like I have done in my previous competitions.”
Max could have been forgiven for an under-par 2015, following the bout of Glandular Fever which left him “completely drained” and forced his withdrawal from the all-round competition at the British Gymnastics Championships. The fact that he still came away from that competition with a pommel horse silver medal says much about the class and battling qualities of the young man.
He then went on to record his greatest achievement to date at the World Championships in Glasgow.
“Last year was a massive learning curve for me because I went into some competitions not being as ready as I could have been and still came away with results, which makes me feel much better and helps me to chill out more and go with the flow,” Max continued.
It’s really hard not to think about Rio - I’ve been thinking about it in the back of my mind ever since London 2012.Max Whitlock
“I know that my head has to be in the right place and I need to go out there and do my best, because that’s all I can do. For me, getting Glandular Fever was just unlucky and I’m doing my very best to keep as fit as possible now.
“I’m back in training now, ready to build it up for the competitions ahead and I’m looking forward to getting back out there.”
While all the hype centres on Rio, Max has got plenty to focus on beforehand, starting with the Glasgow World Cup on March 12, followed by the English Championships, the British Championships, and the European Championships. A hefty schedule but one which Max believes will put him in tip top condition heading into the Olympics.
“Obviously it’s hard not to think about Rio but I’m trying to keep it in the back of my mind because my full focus is on the competitions ahead,” he said. “I’m still putting in some new skills for the tournaments that I’ve got coming up because I’ve learned that you have to look back at your previous competitions and see what you can improve on.
“I looked back at the World Championships and could see that I need to improve on my high bar and improve on my rings so I’ve upped those start scores and I’m working hard to get those routines ready for the competitions I’ve got coming up. Hopefully this will improve my overall score.”
While he is clearly intent on laying down a marker in his forthcoming tournaments, Max admits it is hard to keep himself from dreaming of what could be in Rio. After all, he says, he has been raring to go ever since his first taste of the Olympics in London.
“It’s really hard not to think about Rio – I’ve been thinking about it in the back of my mind ever since London 2012,” he admitted. “I’ve had a four-year plan working towards it so it’s hard not to think about it. But while I obviously can’t wait for it, I’ve got jobs to do beforehand.
“I’ll be keeping my routines pretty much the same for the tournaments leading up to Rio because the more you practice them, hopefully the better they will get. This year I’ll be going out with the routines that I want to perform at the Olympic Games and that’s what my target is.
“I don’t like to think about medals, I just want to go to the competitions and perform clean routines all the way around because I want to be touching the 91-mark for my overall score. That’s purely my target, because if I can do that then hopefully the results will look after themselves.”
From what we’ve seen over the years, it’s fair to say that we can expect another medal-laden year from our Hemel Hempstead Hero. But dare we dream of hailing Great Britain’s first ever Olympic gymnastics champion? If anyone has the talent, attitude and temperament to do it, it’s our very own Mighty Max.