Feature: Mighty Max ready to roll on the road to Rio

Max Whitlock is raring to go. Picture (c) John Davis
Max Whitlock is raring to go. Picture (c) John Davis

He has already established himself as a true legend of British gymnastics, but Hemel Hempstead superstar Max Whitlock is promising that there is still much more to come – with all roads leading to Rio 2016.

The 22-year-old, from Adeyfield, has enjoyed a fairytale rise to stardom since breaking into the public eye as a double-bronze medal winner at the London Olympics in 2012, and he has since gone on to take silver at the World Championships, as well as finishing above Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale in the standings for BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2014.

Max Whitlock won Commonwealth gold in Glasgow. Picture (c) Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Max Whitlock won Commonwealth gold in Glasgow. Picture (c) Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

But there is no dampening Max’s desire for success, and he is gearing up for another hectic year as he aims to put the finishing touches in place before going for gold at the 2016 Olympic Games - a challenge which the young man is relishing.

First up for Max is the English Championships in a couple of weeks, before he goes head-to-head with his friends and team-mates at the British Championships, where he is promising to unleash a new set of skills.

“The big target for me is to go out there and show some new routines,” said Max. “I’ve been working on quite a few new skills that I’m putting in over a few apparatus so that should hopefully up my starter scores quite a lot. Hopefully, if I can get them as clean as I can, my overall score at the end of the competition will be bigger. That’s my target, to try and beat my personal best.

“I think you’ve got to focus on bettering yourself. A quote which I read before basically said that you shouldn’t worry about what other people are doing and I think that’s what I try to do.

Max Whitlock and coach Scott Hann

Max Whitlock and coach Scott Hann

“I try to focus on myself, enjoying the experience and do the best that I can. That’s what I go to the championships to do, and if I can get a result out of that, then I’m happy.”

Max has always enjoyed an excellent relationship with his Great Britain squad members, and he is relishing the chance to take them on once again in Liverpool.

“It’s brilliant, I know everyone looks forward to it,” he said. “We take the competition very seriously but we also bounce off each other a lot and we really push each other. It will be a good marker of where everyone is at before the first major championship, the Europeans in April.

“It’s all building up to the World Championships at the end of the year and hopefully we can all go and do well and keep pushing as a team. That’s what it’s all about; we need to keep going strong and keep pushing through to the end of the year as this is all a trial for the Rio Olympics which is the really important one.

Max Whitlock won Commonwealth Games gold on the floor

Max Whitlock won Commonwealth Games gold on the floor

“Everything is looking towards Rio because it’s really starting to get closer now quite quickly. But it’s a step at a time – hopefully we will do well in each of the stages and then qualify in a nice solid place and have a comfortable team going into Rio.”

Max goes into this month’s British Championships as the one to beat, having won the competition in convincing style last year, and he admits that this does add to the pressure.

“I think going into the event as reigning champion can put extra pressure on yourself but I think that you have to try and ignore it,” he said. “The more pressure that I can take off myself the better, and that’s what I try to do in every competition.

“I’m not going there thinking I want to come away with first place, I’m thinking of my own job – just making clean routines. That’s how I try to take the pressure off myself and make me perform better.”

Max had a topsy-turvy time at last year’s World Championships, failing to qualify for the final before taking the place of injured team-mate Nile Wilson and eventually taking the silver medal – an experience which he says has been a real eye-opener.

“It’s been a massive learning curve and hopefully I can go forward into this year and next year learning from that competition and performing better,” said Max.

“It really identified what my weaker pieces are when you look at my lower scores compared to the rest of the world. I was a fair bit behind on rings and high bar, so I’ve tried to up those starter scores. Hopefully it pays off; obviously it adds risk factor but we will see at the end of the day if I can come out with a bigger score.

“I’m also trying a big one on floor and aiming to up it on P-bar so I’m just trying to get everything as high as I can at the moment and then consolidate everything on the road to Rio.”

And just how does it feel to be officially the second best all-round gymnast on the planet, with a real chance of winning Olympic gold?

“It hasn’t actually sunk in yet even though it’s been quite a while since the World Championships,” said Max. “I think it will take a very long while – I still pinch myself sometimes because I can’t quite believe that I’m ranked that highly.

“For people to be saying that I’ve got the potential to win gold and I’m one to look out for in Rio is amazing for me. I honestly appreciate that a lot because there’s a lot of hard work that goes into it.

“Sport is sport at the end of the day, and if I can go out there and produce on the day, then I’d like to think I have a chance.”