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Sunday 14 August 2016 is a day that British gymnast Max Whitlock will always remember. Not content with winning gold in the floor to become his country’s first ever Olympic gold medallist in artistic gymnastics, he went and won the pommel horse title, taking his overall Olympic medal tally to five.
Whitlock had already proved his class at London 2012, where he won bronze in the team all-around (which was Great Britain’s first team medal in artistic gymnastics since 1912), and another bronze in the pommel. Serving further notice of his abilities, he claimed pommel gold at the 2015 World Championships in Glasgow, before scoring that golden double at Rio 2016. He also took bronze in the individual all-around in Rio, behind the great Kohei Uchimura to claim Great Britain’s first medal in the event for 108 years.
Whitlock’s exploits in the Rio 2016 apparatus finals attracted a TV audience of more than 10.4 million viewers back home, with several famous faces from Team GB also gathering in the stands at the Rio Olympic Arena, among them Andy Murray.
The British gymnast did not let them down. Tipped to do well on the pommel horse – his favourite apparatus – he stunned everyone with his gravity-defying display in the floor. His superb routine earned him 15.663 points, giving him victory from Brazilian duo Diego Hypolito and Arthur Mariano and earning Great Britain a maiden individual gold in artistic gymnastics. No one was more taken aback than Whitlock himself.
“It was a massive surprise. I wasn’t expecting it for the floor,” he said in response to his achievement. “It was my first Olympic floor final, let alone a medal. In actual fact, I was happy to make the floor to ease me into the competition for the pommel.
“I wasn’t watching anything. I wasn’t watching the routines in front of me or after me. I didn’t know where I was placed. Scott, my coach, just nudged me on the leg and said, ‘Max, you’re Olympic champion’. And the emotion just hit me.”
Less than two hours later, Whitlock was back in action on the pommel. His team-mate Louis Smith, who had won silver in London four years earlier, set the bar for Whitlock by taking the lead with an excellent score of 15.833 points. The next man out, Whitlock bettered it with a fluid routine full of finesse, one that earned him 15.966 points and with it a second gold of the afternoon and a third medal of the Games, with Smith picking up another silver behind him.
“It's just an incredible feeling,” said Whitlock after becoming Great Britain’s first double Olympic artistic gymnastics champion. “All the gymnasts out there know how much work goes into it. You get one minute to show what you've been working on for the last however many years.”
Whitlock took up gymnastics when he was seven. Showing rich early promise, he developed his skills on every apparatus, excelling in the pommel horse in particular. He won the European junior title in the event in Birmingham in 2010, while also winning silver in the individual all-around. That same year he made his senior debut, aged 17, at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, pocketing silvers in the team all-around and pommel horse and bronze in the horizontal bar.
Whitlock and his team-mates than scored a major success in taking the European team all-around title in Montpellier (FRA) in 2012, the perfect preparation for the London Games, where he broke new ground for British gymnastics with his two bronzes. More glory was to come his way at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, in the shape of five medals, three of them gold (team all-around, individual all-around and floor), making him the most decorated British gymnast of the Games.