Olympic hero Max Whitlock: a Hemel boy at heart
Max Whitlock's performances at Rio stunned the gymnastics and sporting world.
The lad who slipped on his first gym shoes in Hemel at the age of seven has now reached the pinnacle of the sport with two gold medals at the 2016 Olympics.
But amid the relentless glare of the world’s media in Brazil he was happy to spend time chatting on the phone to his local paper.
“To be honest it’s not really sunk in yet, it feels kind of surreal. I can’t really explain what it feels like,” Max told the Gazette this week.
“I’ve done a bit of celebrating but we wait till everyone’s finished for some proper celebrations. We have had some more performances to watch and the results have been brilliant.
“My parents just left the other day, so I managed to spend some time with them too.”
It has been an unforgettable fortnight for the Hemel gymnast.
Competing first as part of the GB mens team who were narrowly edged out of a medal, he then took bronze in the all-around competition – the first British man to medal in it for 108 years.
But more was to come. In less than two hours of a super Sunday the 23-year-old won the floor competition and then the pommel horse. It sent records tumbling – Max becoming the first GB gymnast to win Olympic gold, and with five medals across two Games he is now the country’s most decorated gymnast in history.
Max said he went into Sunday’s competitions with hopes, but not expectations, of success: “You never really know how you are going to do. You just go in there and do your job, do what you have been training to do.
“You don’t go in expecting to win – you can hope to but you can’t expect to.
“I wasn’t really watching any of the other competitors. When Scott (Hann, his coach) turned to me and said ‘You’re Olympic champion’ it was unbelievable. I had no idea! It was very emotional.”
But there was no opportunity for immediate celebrations as just minutes later he had to compete on the pommel horse, the apparatus he was already a world champion in. And an excellent routine saw him take double gold.
Max was full of praise for his coach who has worked alongside him at South Essex Gymnastics Club: “Scott has been unbelievable, these medals are his as much as mine.
“He takes all the stress off me, gets me in the right mindset. These last four years have been a massive learning curve.
“We stepped out of London 2012 and I wanted to prove myself as an all-rounder and I’ve done that. I feel I’ve completed that target now.”
Max’s gymnastic journey began back in Hemel at the age of seven: “I was initially in a swimming club and it was through that where I first got involved in the gym.
“And at first I liked it and wanted to do more of it, I got into the (world class) school when I was nine, so people saw potential in me from that age.”
So was he starry-eyed about Olympic glory from an early age? “No, for me it wasn’t about thinking of going to the Olympics, I was going to do something I enjoyed and that I was happy doing.”
His first major success came with three medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and they haven’t stopped coming for the former Longdean School student with European and World Championship medals. At London 2012 he earned two bronze medals, on the pommel horse and in the team competition.
2015 was a difficult year as Max had to fight glandular fever. He bounced back though to become the first British man to win a World Gymnastics title, on the pommel horse at Glasgow.
His success has been recognised back in Hemel – in 2015 a new pub was named the Pommel Horse in honour of his achievements. “It’s great,” laughed Max. “I’ve been in there, they’ve got pictures on the wall, and it’s really nice.”
Max said he had spent much of his time since Sunday relaxing in the GB House – the headquarters of Team GB at the Rio Olympics
He said: “The place is amazing. It’s a place for us to relax after the competition, the whole gymnastics team are here now and it’s a nice place to come and chill out.
“When you’re competing away from home it’s never as glamorous as it appears. DFS (who created the limited edition Britannia sofa range especially for British House) wanted to make it a home from home and it’s amazing.”
Now the competition was over, Max said: “I want to try to enjoy the place and see a bit of Rio, getting out is not something we normally get to do. So I have five more days here and I’m really looking forward to enjoying it.”
But once that’s done it’s time to fly back to Britain. “I can’t wait to get back home, and be back in Hemel. The whole journey has been unbelievable and I can’t wait to get back and start celebrating.
“I’m a Hemel boy at heart.
“I’m just looking forward to having time with family and friends. I haven’t seen Leah (his fiancee) for over a month, so I want to get time with my family, get back to the gym club. I’m looking forward to getting back into home life again.”
And Max know’s he’s still got lots more to give: “I’m trying to enjoy this first and let it sink in. It’s proving a difficult job! After Rio I will take some time off, and then look forward. There’s a lot I still want to achieve.”
Max Whitlock is currently one of the official Team GB ambassadors for leading UK sofa retailer DFS.