The Bell’s Sports Centre in Perth offers a low-profile return of one of Britain’s highest-profile Olympians. But in the case of Max Whitlock, we should just be grateful he is returning at all.
It is 18 months since we last saw the Team GB gymnast perform on a pommel horse, when he won his third Olympic gold medal in Tokyo. Little did we know then, though, it was almost the final act of his career.
‘I didn’t announce it publicly but, in my head, I was adamant I was finished,’ Whitlock tells Sportsmail. ‘I told everyone close to me that I wasn’t going back into the gym and I was done.’
That private decision to retire, however, caused Whitlock to suffer something of an existential crisis early last year.
‘I felt completely lost,’ he admits. ‘I felt like a waste of space. It didn’t matter what I’d achieved, I felt like a failure.
Three-time Olympic champion Max Whitlock is ready to make a comeback after a ‘big reset’
Whitlock has not competed since winning his third Olympic gold medal in Tokyo
The 30-year-old was inspired to ‘give it another shot’ by his four-year-old daughter Willow
‘I was just in a rut. I have never really struggled with motivation and then all of a sudden I was struggling to motivate myself to get out of bed. I was fatigued, 24/7. I was really low and struggling.’
Whitlock was so concerned about his health he took a blood test to see if it was a physical issue rather than mental. The results confirmed it was the latter and he knew the only way to get out of his hole was to get back on the horse.
Whitlock still only returned to the gym at the end of last summer, completing a full year off, the longest time he has ever spent out of his sport. But a mental load lifted once he had a new goal to focus on – the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Now, as he prepares for his comeback at the Scottish Championships this weekend, he feels like he has been given a new lease of life.
‘I am loving being back,’ says Whitlock. ‘My mindset has changed a lot. I feel I am a different competitor to what I was before Tokyo. The big difference is the fear of failure has gone. The pressure is not there.
‘I don’t feel like I need to perform or it’s going to look bad, because that’s how I was starting to feel in the lead up to Tokyo. I didn’t enjoy the sport as much because of it.
‘That mindset before Tokyo just wasn’t sustainable, so it was going to crumble at some point. It was almost good that it crumbled then.
‘Now I have had this big reset. Instead of looking at the challenges as daunting, I am excited for the challenges now. I was so close to just packing it all in, now I am giving it an extra shot, so why not just enjoy it?’
One of the big reasons Whitlock chose to carry on, he says, is his daughter Willow. She turns four next week and is a keen gymnast herself. But she has still not properly watched her father compete because of the Covid-19 pandemic and then his post-Olympics break.
‘Willow has been a huge driving force,’ says Whitlock. ‘If I did stop, it would have been taking the easy route and quitting and I didn’t really want to send that message to Willow. I’d rather give it a go.
‘It will be nice for her to watch me compete in real life rather than watching it on video. She was at the British Championships in 2019 but she was so young at the time, she slept through the whole competition! It is quite cool now because she is of an age where she gets it and she loves gymnastics.’
Willow will not travel to Scotland this weekend, but she is set to watch her dad at next week’s English Championships in Telford, next month’s British Championships in Liverpool and then the big one – next year’s Olympics in Paris.
There, Whitlock could make history as the first gymnast to win a medal at four consecutive Games on the same piece of apparatus – something his smile suggests he knows all about.
‘When I decided to try and give it a go again, that was something I did look into because that is another form of motivation for me,’ he says. ‘That would be massive.
‘It is a chance of making history and there is zero per cent chance of doing it if I didn’t come back and try. I’ve given myself a chance now. It’s worth giving it a shot.’
In many ways, the odds are stacked against Whitlock. He turned 30 last month, making him a veteran of his sport. ‘I still feel like I am 23!’ he laughs. ‘I still feel a bit weird about being 30. I am not happy about it.
‘I am pushing it for a gymnast. There is no doubt age makes it more challenging. Your stamina and consistency reduces every year.
Whitlock prepares for his comeback at the Scottish Championships this weekend
Whitlock is well aware the odds are stacked against him after turning 30 last month
Whitlock could make history as the first gymnast to win a medal at four consecutive Games
‘But I am doing what I can to try and keep those levels up. I have changed my routine. I’ve got three new skills in my pommel horse routine. It’s the same difficulty level but it’s a more efficient routine. It’s a hundred times better than my Tokyo routine.’
As for his plans for after Paris, Whitlock is wisely staying non-committal. Having already U-turned on retirement once, Los Angeles 2028 could yet still tempt him.
‘I’m never going to say that I’m never going to LA,’ he adds. ‘This has all just proved my ideas can switch at any given moment.’
And how Team GB supporters are thankful for that.
Source of data and images: dailymail
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The Bell’s Sports Centre in Perth offers a low-profile return of one of Britain’s highest-profile Olympians. But in the case of Max Whitlock, we should just be grateful he is returning at all. It is 18 months since we last saw the Team GB gymnast perform on a pommel horse, when he won his third …
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