By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – With one year to go until the Tokyo Olympics, and the pressure mounting, Britain’s double gymnastics gold medallist Max Whitlock is already thinking ahead.
The 26-year-old, winner of the floor exercise and pommel horse titles at Rio de Janeiro 2016 and now preparing for his third Games, plans to be around for the Paris 2024 Olympics as well.
“I’m hoping to go on for another two (Games). This one and the next one, that’s what I’m going to push for,” he told Reuters on Wednesday. “So I don’t see this as my last one.
“I look at Rio, that was so far the absolute pinnacle of my career, and people obviously say ‘go out on a high’. But I started gymnastics because I love the sport, I love training, I love everything about it, I love competing.
“So I don’t want to stop until I kind of have to.”
At London 2012, his home Games, Whitlock was happy to be the underdog, a youngster not expected to do much more than gain experience. He came away with two bronzes.
In Rio, he became the first British gymnast to win individual gold, then added a second and a bronze to take his Olympic medal tally to five.
Tokyo promises to be another chapter, with Whitlock one of his country’s leading gold medal hopes.
“Going into this one is very different, the pressure ramps up every single year and the pressure’s going to be massive in Tokyo. It really is,” he said.
“But the support has gone up so much as well. I am going to try and retain titles. That’s the reason why I’m training so hard in the gym and where I’ve got a lot of my motivation from.
“Retaining a title for me has been amazing at world championships but to do it at Olympic Games would be incredible.”
Whitlock, also a double pommel horse world champion and Britain’s most successful gymnast, became a father this year and is loving it.
“Going into Tokyo and being a dad, it’s actually chilled me out more,” he smiled.
“I feel like Willow (his daughter) has put a lot of things into perspective massively, so if you’re not having the best day in the gym in training, it’s good to not stress.
“It (fatherhood) has made me more chilled as a person, because you have got this other main focus which is such a big priority. That doesn’t take away from the sport, but I think it enhances it.”
In practical terms, Whitlock decided after Rio to shake up his programmes.
“I saw that there was more room for improvement…I also didn’t want to come back with the same routines that I did in the (last) Olympic Games,” he explained. “That for me was just a no-go basically.
“I’ve made some huge upgrades and with upgrades comes risk, but that’s what the last two and a half years have been about since Rio. It’s been about consolidating those risks and getting those new skills in so I can perfect them in time for Tokyo.”
The risks were evident last year when he won ‘only’ silver at the Commonwealth Games and finished second at the world championships in Doha, despite ending up with the same score as Chinese winner Xiao Ruoteng.
Some felt he had failed, but Whitlock saw that as a ‘huge compliment’ in that gold was now the standard expected.
“People write you off very quickly. I’ve had judges say to me that they think I will be retiring soon,” he said. “People have a lot of opinions when you get a big result or you get a big lose.
“But you are never going to win every time. it’s just how life works.”
In April he struck pommel gold again at the European championships in Poland.
“Proving stuff to other people and to yourself is always a huge motivation, and that’s why the Europeans this year was such a good feeling but also a relief as well,” he said.
“The whole of 2018 I spoke about looking at the bigger picture, and how I’m doing and putting this risk in now for a more important reason. And I kept saying that.
“But obviously if you don’t then prove it, it just looks like you’ve made mistakes.
“So doing that in the Europeans, coming away with the gold…I gained a lot of confidence from that.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)