The last time Max Whitlock competed in a major final with a medal on the line, disaster nearly struck. Whitlock started his routine on the pommel horse final at the 2019 world championships as he always does, lifting himself up to handstand on one handle. But as he reached its apex he lost his balance and his hand moved up the horse. It was a clear error on the most unforgiving apparatus, the type that could scupper a routine.
“It was a crazy moment,” says Whitlock, laughing, in a phone interview. “Because as soon as I took that ‘step’, I immediately knew that it was a big deduction. I also knew my start value was high. And also, it’s important to stay in the zone, never give up, really. My mindset as soon as that happened was: ‘I need to go through the routine, the rest of it, all out now. There’s no holding back.’ And that’s what I did.”
Whitlock immediately gathered himself, he pieced together a seamless set until the end and somehow marched off with the gold medal. It was a moment that explains Whitlock as much as any. Over the past nine years he has established himself as one of the mental giants of the sport.
This is a significant distinction in gymnastics, where consistency is sought by all but rarely achieved. As Whitlock himself discusses often, it can be so difficult: “You’ve got 60, 70 seconds to show what you can do. And it’s done. You don’t get a second chance, you don’t get a chance to redeem yourself, which is hard to deal with.”
And yet, his performances over the years have earned him a pommel horse bronze medal aged 19 at London 2012, and golds on floor and pommel at Rio 2016 plus bronze in a stacked all-around final. He is one of the most dominant pommel horse gymnasts of all time, having won four of the past world and olympic titles, only missing gold on a tie-breaker in 2018.
His mindset, embracing pressure and enjoying the competition is his mental balm. But there is one more thing. Since 2013, Whitlock has had the highest difficulty routine in every pommel final he has competed in. For most gymnasts, greater difficulty comes with more risk, uncertainty and deductions, but this has become part of his armour.
“Once I held the highest difficulty routine in the world, in the back of my mind I realised it helped my mindset in going into the competitions because then I didn’t need to focus on anybody else,” says Whitlock. “There was a real learning curve throughout my career and I was watching other gymnasts and thinking: ‘How am I ever going to compare to these people? I’m not good enough. How am I gonna do that?’ And then there was a lightbulb moment, a switch where actually you’ve got to not worry about what everyone else is doing. You can only do the best you can.”
As a third Olympic Games awaits in Tokyo, Whitlock’s scope has narrowed with age. After Rio, he decided to stop competing in the all-around and floor exercises to preserve his body. Pommel will be his sole focus for a medal and he will also contribute in the high bar and parallel bars to bolster the team scores.
Figuring out how to prolong his career has been one of his most important challenges, which he describes as a “learning curve”. The 28-year-old has cut back his old 35 hours, six days a week regime to 20 hours. “I’m getting older. I can’t train like I used to. I’ve had to really bring it down, change my focus, change my recovery stretches to make things as efficient as possible.”
Even so, in the back of his mind this is still a long-term project. He wants his four year-old daughter, Willow, to see him compete. Even as he trained for Tokyo, he was planning for Paris 2024: “After Tokyo, I will be having a big reset and then looking – is there another skill that I want to do and skills that would be really valuable to me? And then I go again.”
The obstacle for him and many gymnasts is that because of Covid-19 they will compete without the mental fitness built up through competing. It showed at the European Championships in April when Whitlock’s medal bid was over in 35 seconds after a mistake in qualifying.
Whitlock’s preparation for Tokyo has included putting a pommel horse in an empty hall in front of a few dozen people in his gym and performing as if in competition in order to replicate some kind of pressure. “You gotta look at it as everybody is in the same boat.” he says. “No one’s preparation or buildup has been plain sailing, for anybody around the world. Everybody has been mucked about a bit, a lot of new situations that we’ve had to adapt in.”
Still, one of his biggest assets this year is that he has been there many times, adapted to countless situations and still come out on top. He will try for the same outcome in Tokyo.