Max Whitlock interview: Olympic star talks Simone Biles, Tokyo 2020 and Birmingham 2022

  • Kobe Tong
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Max Whitlock has pulled up a chair to the top table of British sporting royalty.

From the moment the Team GB star posted a competition-crushing score of 15.583 in the Olympic pommel horse final this summer, his knife, fork and plate had already been laid alongside the greats.

With an immaculate gold medal at Tokyo 2020 - his sixth ribbon at Summer Games overall - the Hemel Hempstead-born athlete consolidated his status as the country's most decorated Olympic gymnast.

Whitlock's golden Tokyo 2020

In many ways, Whitlock's performance in Japan marked a magnum opus amongst masterpieces, reiterating his superiority when circumstance and fortune seemed to be stacked against him.

The spectre of the COVID-19 pandemic loomed large over every vault and tumble of the Games and unlike in London and Rio de Janeiro, there were no in-arena British fans to cheer Whitlock's name.

Marry that to being the first athlete to take to the apparatus during the pommel horse final and lesser athletes would have crumbled under the sheer pressure of it all. Whitlock is no lesser athlete.

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Whitlock reflects on his Tokyo journey

Speaking to GIVEMESPORT ahead of the 2022 Commonwealth Games national ballot, the 28-year-old reflected on the tougher moments of a Tokyo journey that underlined his place in the history books with golden ink.

And crucial to that was a training programme so thorough that Whitlock would train in empty gyms in order to replicate the uncomfortable silence that came with the most unique of all Olympic Games.

"We definitely prepared as much as we possibly could," Whitlock reflected. "We tried to make it uncomfortable in training. We tried to create different pressure environments that we're not used to.

"We put my pommel horse in the empty hall next door. It was a completely empty hall just to make sure that we could try and put myself in those different environments. I felt so nervous for it, so it was definitely great practice.

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"It's hard to completely replicate what you're going to be like in an Olympic Games - pretty much impossible - but we definitely did as much as we could and what that does is actually help your confidence in terms of: 'I've done everything I can do going into this, now I just need to do the best I possibly can and do my job'.

"So, 100 per cent that helped me out in this prep. Prep was crazy. Prep wasn't ideal for every single athlete out there. So, we had to make the most of what we could do really."

The mental challenges of Tokyo

And the challenges didn't end there because the imposing, though necessary, restrictions that duly came in Tokyo took their own unique toll on all of the athletes - many of whom have been incredibly brave speaking about the effects it had on their mental health.

While the deadly-focused Whitlock appeared from the outside to traverse the loneliness and restraints with a skip and a jump, even the three-time Olympic champion wasn't immune to drops in energy. 

"In the build up, there was definitely times where motivation definitely dipped," Whitlock readily admitted. "There's no doubt about that. I'm being completely honest in saying that.

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"But there were also times where it peaked. You know, I saw this as a bit of a new challenge. I wanted to be one of those athletes that comes out of lockdown in the same if not a better position. I can look back and really feel like I utilised that time. 

"But definitely when we got out there, the pressure really did start to sink in and you have to try and make every session count. But, you know, your own pressure in terms of wanting to achieve your goals is hard sometimes.

"The day of my pommel horse final, I was battling in my head with doubts coming in one side and then the positive side of thinking what it would feel like if I did a great routine. 

"You try and keep it as positive as you can, but doubts sink in all the time. It's difficult. It really, really is. It's the same for every single athlete that goes out there. There's no doubt about that."

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Simon Biles' courageous decision

It really does feel as though there is a common ground amongst elite sportspeople when it comes to fighting the mental battles that come with competing at such pressurising and stress-inducing events.

And Whitlock's assertion of this universality was perhaps most apparent in the Tokyo 2020 gymnastics programme through Simone Biles' courageous decision to withdraw from several finals on mental health grounds.

Despite the pangs and clamour that met the American icon's exit, the collective acknowledgment of how risky continuing to compete under such circumstances rightfully won the online back and forth.

When I asked Whitlock about the importance of looking after your mental wellbeing in elite sports - just as you would your body - his response spoke volumes about the intelligence and self-care behind Biles' decision.

"It's so important, you can't say any more," Whitlock replied without hesitation. "Especially when you're in a sport that can be dangerous if you're not in the right position or your head's not in the right frame of mind.

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"I think that decision for Simone, you can guarantee that it wasn't an easy one. There's no doubt about that. To do what she's done over the last two cycles has been incredible.

"I, for one, would have absolutely loved for her to go and finish that off and come out with the title at the end of that, but it wasn't to be and she had to make a decision that was based on looking at the bigger picture.

"I think it made a big impact on everybody else's mindset that you've got to make that decision based on you and not on what you think other people want to hear."

It's an incredibly important message and one that really underpins why Whitlock stands out as such a brilliant role model amongst the English and British ranks.

All eyes on Birmingham 2022

And we specify 'English', too, because Whitlock will be sporting the red and white of the St. George's cross when he looks to add more precious metal to his collection of ten Commonwealth medals in Birmingham next summer. 

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ENTER GIVEAWAY

A packed crowd of British fans feels like the perfect homecoming for an athlete who had to celebrate one of the biggest achievements of his career in an empty stadium - and Whitlock can't wait to get back on the horse on home soil. 

"The last year and a half, I think people have missed sport," the Olympic champion said. "There's only been a few events that have actually been full capacity in terms of audiences.

"You know, looking back at Tokyo, there was no audience there, which was a huge shame, so it makes me really look forward to this [Birmingham 2022]. I'm someone that loves being at home.

"The home competitions, for me; I absolutely love them. So, for this to come around next year with a full crowd. It will be incredible. The atmosphere will be amazing, so I cannot wait."

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More hardware for Whitlock?

Truth be told, Whitlock's place in British sporting history is already assured. No matter what he does or does not achieve at Birmingham 2022, or even Paris 2024, won't do anything to threaten that.

However, there is something fitting about an athlete who has already broken new ground and gone where no British gymnast has before ploughing deeper and deeper into record-breaking territory.

And having overcome the piercing silence and creeping loneliness of an Olympic tournament like no other, there's a certain poetry that comes with picturing Whitlock receiving a hero's welcome next summer.

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He might have a seat at the top table, but no one's calling last orders yet.

“The main ticket ballot for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games is now open. Apply for tickets now at Birmingham2022.com. The ballot closes at 8pm on 30 September.”

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