It took a year before Max Whitlock could bring himself to watch his exploits in Rio. You could understand if, having become the first Briton to win artistic gymnastics gold when he triumphed in the pommel horse discipline and repeated the feat two hours later when he won the floor exercise, the double Olympic champion might have his medal-winning brilliance playing on a permanent loop on his phone.
But not Whitlock. Indeed, if his wife Leah had not organised a party for friends and relatives on the anniversary of his victory, at which a video rerun of his golden Rio day was the centrepiece, he would still have no idea what his achievement looked like.
“Sure, I’d caught highlight clips when I did public appearances,” he says. “But I hadn’t seen it in full until then. I’ll admit I was nervous watching it. But do you know what was nice? I watched the routines of the other seven finalists. I’d never seen them before, I didn’t watch them at the time because I can never watch what my rivals are doing.
“It made me realise the competition was ridiculous, the scores so tight. It made me even more proud of getting those results when the field was pretty much the strongest it’s ever been.”
His evening in front of the screen reliving his triumphs did something else, too: it whetted his competitive appetite. After taking a year out, to travel, to get married, to try to see what life was like away from a relentless round of tournaments, he had done only a few public demonstrations. Not once had he competed. And watching himself perform, he felt something click.
“It got me fired up to come back,” he says. “It got me motivated, got the butterflies going a bit. I’d left it a long time. But it made me realise I was ready. It does feel like it’s been a while, now I can’t wait to get back.”
This week, Whitlock will be in competition in Montreal at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. He will be performing on the floor and on the pommel horse, in the latter discipline defending the title he won in Glasgow in 2015. Not that he sees it that way. For him, he says, this is a new start.
“I’ve thought about this a lot, I don’t really feel I’m defending the title. I’m so proud of that win, but it’s done. This is a different year, a different field, everyone is going for the same target. I prefer to look at myself as being in the mix, just one of the pack.”
And if we thought what he did in Rio was spectacular in its gravity-defying muscular grace, it is nothing, he says, to what will be on show in Canada. What he has been doing away from public scrutiny for much of these past few months is to put together the most complex, most demanding performance he has ever attempted.
“I didn’t want to come back with the same routines I had in Rio,” he says. “I really feel I can do a lot more on those pieces. I’ve spent a lot of time in the gym doing what I needed to do, make upgrades, learn new skills, give myself more of a challenge.”
Everything has been made more difficult. Take his floor routine. It includes five tumbles. He has added extra twists and extra somersaults to four of them. It has not been an easy process.
“It’s really hard, really tough,” he smiles at the memory of the relentless rehearsal. “To get one skill that’s new into your routine is a big challenge. Upgrading four is a big jump. But it’s a jump I wanted to make. I don’t want to stand still. I don’t want to think, ‘Oh well, those routines were good enough last year, they should do next time.’ I want to keep learning. That’s what I love about gymnastics: it never stops, there’s always something to learn. You have to be ambitious, you have to push yourself.”
Whitlock shares with Adam Peaty the unusual distinction of being a Briton dominating a sport in which we have traditionally been also-rans. But unlike Peaty, he is not an outlier. Rather, he see himself at the vanguard of a huge surge of talent, particularly on the men’s side of the sport.
Britain’s junior squads have been dominating competitions for some time. And now several have progressed through the system to participate in Canada, competitors such as the brilliant 18-year-old Joe Fraser, who, in Whitlock’s absence, took the all-round British title this year.
“There’s a real depth in the squad,” Whitlock says. “You can look at the juniors, they’re doing amazing stuff. Hopefully, what we’re doing as seniors can give them more motivation to do even better.”
But the champion believes more could be done to bring through the best. He was dispirited to discover when he returned from Rio that his own club of South Essex in Basildon had several hundred children on the waiting list, unable to get in the gym.
“I can’t tell you how many more people want to get involved,” he says of his sport. “What I see as a big shame is there’s not enough gyms out there to give those interested a taste of it. At the moment, kids turn up and are sent away, told to wait for a year. A lot will think, ‘I won’t bother.’ We could be letting future world champions go.”
But he is not one simply to moan about the shortfall in facilities. He is doing something about it. “My wife and I, we’re setting up a chain of gymnastics academies. The first two venues in Southend and Colchester are opening next year. It’s all our money, we’ve developed the whole coaches’ programme, session structures, everything. My dream is to cover the country with Max Whitlock Gymnastics so every kid if they want to give it a go, there’ll be a local place for them.”
What he wants to do, he says, is eventually find a future world champion. One whose exploits he might enjoy watching on television in the future. “Obviously you’ve got to think big,” he smiles. As he promises he will be doing when he hits the floor in Montreal.