Joe Fraser upsets Rhys McClenaghan as pommel heavyweights overcome immense adversity

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It was a heavyweight showdown fraught with adversity in the build-up, yet Joe Fraser was left standing after dethroning a gutsy Rhys McClenaghan to take Commonwealth Games gold on the pommel. The English gymnast pulled off a minor miracle to even be in Birmingham after overcoming a burst appendix and broken foot in recent weeks, yet McClenaghan was forced to jump through more hoops in a bid to defend the title he won four years ago.

There was a hint of a scowl across the Northern Irishman’s face, “disappointment, of course”, yet pride quickly arrived at a silver medal achieved weeks after defying his sport’s governing body (FIG) after being dispelled in May, alongside teammates Eamon Montgomery and Ewan McAteer, due to competing for Ireland in international competition.

McClenaghan’s talent and slick style, which upset Great Britain’s three-time Olympic champion Max Whitlock in 2018, forced Fraser to roll the dice, embracing the pitfalls of a routine with a 6.100 difficulty rating. But Fraser, the 2019 world champion on parallel bars, showcased his versatility with impressive acceleration into a double-leg circle, snapping his wrists on and off the handles while gracefully extending his hips. The final piece of the puzzle came in maintaining his concentration; a smart transition to the pirouette on the dismount prompted a fist pump. And the 14.833 score would prove too much for McClenaghan, despite what he later described as a “flawless” first half to the routine.

A minor slip in a routine only worth 5.600 in difficulty, despite an appeal, left the Northern Irishman unable to threaten Fraser, but 14.133 was enough to outpoint Canada’s Jayson Rampersad for silver and reignite his motivation ahead of opportunities at the European and World Championships later this year.

“This is testimony to the hard work I’ve put into this sport, I can make an error but come away with a medal,” he said. “I take pride in that and this medal, we weren’t going in the first place.

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“Myself and two other teammates, we’ve made finals, and made use of this opportunity. An historic medal. Only the second medal for Northern Ireland in gymnastics, I look back on this medal as the time we almost didn’t go to the Commonwealth Games.

“It was tough, somebody telling me I’m not Northern Irish, it was tough to take on board, but we trained through it and the training shows today.”

Further battles with Fraser and Whitlock give McClenaghan more excitement, having realised the formidable standard required to reign supreme.

“Some people might think I’ve fallen off after winning in 2018, but it’s just the way gymnastics works, sometimes the victories come very easy, sometimes they don’t. If Joe wasn’t competing, I’d have gold wrapped around my neck, but I’m glad he was competing. I want the toughest competition in the world.

“Of course I would [want Max Whitlock in Paris 2024), I want everybody there, I’m almost a bit disappointed Max wasn’t here today. That competition pushes me to be better. I love that feeling.”

After Jake Jarman’s third gold medal at these Games, England pulled off three more golds with Courtney Tulloch and Georgia-Mae Fenton defending their rings and uneven bars titles to join Fraser atop the podium.

Tulloch bounced off the electric atmosphere in Arena Birmingham, declaring how he brought the “firepower” to Team England after posting 14.400 to resist a strong performance from silver medallist Sokratis Pilakouris, buoyed by a boisterous contingent of Cyprus supporters.

But Fenton sparked the loudest applause of the afternoon though, preventing a famous hat-trick for Australia’s Georgia Godwin, who had already banked gold in the all-around and vault.

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It leaves England with seven gymnastics gold medals and 10 medals in total. Australia are second with just two golds and four in total, while Canada have seven medals without any golds so far.

There was joy for Shannon Archer, too, after creating history for Scotland by claiming a first-ever artistic gymnastics medal at the Commonwealth Games. A bronze medal provoked emotional celebrations for a performance that could inspire a generation.

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