Moments That Made Me: Max Whitlock

Max Whitlock was one of the stars of the Rio 2016 Olympics, adding two golds and a bronze to the pair of bronze medals he had won aged 19 in London four years previously.

The 27-year-old became Britain's first-ever Olympic gymnastics champion with floor gold in Rio and then did it again on the pommel horse, with Louis Smith’s silver ensuring a British one-two.

Whitlock has also claimed gold medals at the World and European Championships and is one of the dominant gymnasts of his generation, building towards Tokyo 2020.

As part of Team GB’s Moments That Made Me podcast, Whitlock spoke to Radzi Chinyanganya about the key moments and landmarks that helped him on the way to glory.

The full conversation is available on the Moments That Made Me podcast, in association with the University of Hull, and is available on iTunesGoogle and Spotify.

Simply search Team GB wherever you get your podcasts from and you’ll find the Moments That Made Me podcast.

Moment One: Following the dream

Whitlock began gymnastics at the age of seven under the guidance of coach Klemen Bedenik, who helped shape the Hemel Hempstead-born star’s early years.

But when Bedenik returned home to Slovenia, Whitlock had a decision to make – one which would have been tough at any stage of life, let alone when you are just out of primary school.

“I had a big decision on my hands when I was 12 years old as to whether to follow my coach,” Whitlock said.

“It took me a long time to decide what to do and I started to not enjoy gymnastics as much. I got to a point where it was ‘do I follow my coach or quit?’ That was one of the only points in my career I’ve thought about stopping gymnastics.

“It was huge decision and I decided to go. I got a one-way flight to Slovenia on my own aged 12, not knowing when I would come back.”

Whitlock trained in Slovenia for three months before returning home and insisted the move played a key part in making him who he is today.

“It taught me a lot and I don’t regret going at all as I would always have thought ‘what if?’,” he said.

“When I got back home I picked a club, South Essex, and I am still there now.

“Moving abroad showed the drive I had from when I was young. If you want to do something, you have to make sacrifices.”

Moment Two: Learning from the best

Whitlock was at a Team GB training camp in France when he was asked if he’d like to go to the Japan Cup in 2010. The response was a definitive yes – with the presence of one particular individual in mind.

“Kohei Uchimura is a guy I’ve looked up to for so many years,” Whitlock said.

“I’ve watched him and the whole Japanese team on YouTube so many times. The way they train, build-up and prepare is very different to a lot of countries. I have tried to take bits which work for me and learn from that.

“I met him in the hotel reception. It was the first time I have ever been starstruck, it was the strangest feeling.

“I had the opportunity to train in the same gym and compete against him. I learned so much and my mindset completely took a turn."

The benefits of the trip were shown in style in the years to come, not least in London. Whitlock was not expected to threaten the podium but superb performances in the team and pommel horse events in front of a jubilant home crowd landed him two bronze medals.

“London 2012 was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it was unbelievable,” he said.

“I remember walking out into that arena with the boys and I had goosebumps.

“My mindset was ‘I have done more than I could have dreamed of – how do I push that to the next level’? We set a four-year plan to get to Rio with the potential of winning a title.”

Moment Three: Willow

In February 2019, Whitlock and his wife Leah welcomed their baby daughter, Willow, into the world.

“Having my little girl tops everything and puts a lot of things in perspective,” he said.

“Willow has taught me so much and helped me be more calm as a person. Holding your baby for the first time is the best thing in the world.

“Leah and I were so ready to have a baby and I wanted to have a baby while I was still competing. I want her to travel the world with me and see what I do.”

Whitlock had to alter his preparations and training regimes to account for the new arrival to the family – but it didn’t stop him succeeding.

“I was used to 10 or 11 hours sleep before Willow came along, which definitely isn’t happening at the moment!

“Exactly a week after Willow was born, I had the English Championships, which were a trial for the Europeans later that year.

“I trained a couple of times that week, turned up, competed and went home. I was there for about 40 minutes in total and won the pommel. That gave me so much confidence.”

Whitlock will be looking to add to his Olympic medal haul in Tokyo, where he could again come face-to-face with his hero.

“I’m praying he (Uchimura) is going to be there in Tokyo,” Whitlock said.

“For me, he is the greatest gymnast that has ever lived.

“I have to approach Tokyo like it’s my first Olympics. I want to do Willow proud, which is another form of motivation.”

Sportsbeat 2020