With eleven medals and four titles in Olympic and world championships, Max Whitlock, who trains in Basildon, is the UK’s most successful ever gymnast. He here chats marriage, burgers and BTECs…
Where’s your favourite place in Essex?
I can’t not pick the gym. Obviously I train in Basildon and I have done for 12 years. So it’s been a long time that I’ve been there [Basildon Sporting Village, Carnes Farm Road] and it’s literally like my second home. I love being in that gym with all my teammates because there’s a great atmosphere and it’s a very rare situation where you get two year olds and three year olds training alongside our elite group.
What is your earliest memory?
I remember doing a lot of handstand competitions in the gym! I was always literally walking on my hands everywhere. But the first competition, I think this really spurred me on and the one that really stands out to me, must have been when I was about nine years old–ish. I came back with seven medals and that really pushed me as a youngster to want some more.
What is your secret vice?
Food. I eat out a lot. I think it’s important to treat yourself. I pretty much eat anything. Chocolate, waffles and ice cream, brownies stuff like that. And Byron Burgers – I love them. I’m quite lucky at the moment, I can kind of eat what I want, partly to do with the training, but I don’t really put on weight, I think I’ve got quite a fast metabolism. Obviously before a competition it’s about eating healthier, but I also think it’s just as important to treat yourselves after.
You’re newly married… are you enjoying being a husband?
Massively enjoying it! It’s a bit strange when I’m introducing Leah to someone, saying my wife, but it’s a good feeling. It makes me feel quite content when we’re outside the gym and I think that helps actually inside the gym too, because obviously aspects outside the gym can help you with training and help you keep more calm, it does that.
We’ve been together nearly ten years – ten years this year – and she’s been with me the whole journey and she’s a gymnastics coach as well so she knows and understands what it takes to be a gymnast.
What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
It’s the advice my parents gave me. Throughout my whole career one of the most important things I’ve done is set targets and set goals. It’s very hard to sort of stay on a path if you feel like you’re not working towards anything. So that would be my tip for anyone in any aspect of life.
And it’s obviously important to find what you love, because if you enjoy what you’re doing then you’ll never stop improving. That’s why I’m happy I’ve found gymnastics. What you enjoy you do more of and what you do more of you get better at and I think that it’s worked that way for me in the gym.
There are 16,000 new BTEC students in Essex every year – you are fronting Pearson’s annual, I Choose BTEC campaign. Why?
I did a BTEC. Because it was practical and coursework-based, it suited me massively. It was perfect for what I was doing at that time, because I was busy with training and the coursework side of things helped massively because there wasn’t the pressure of an exam at the end – I already had enough pressure with the competitions that were coming round so it didn’t add to that. And it also helped me massively on time management Personally the best way of learning – especially with sport – is getting into to it and learning it. Obviously you’ve still got the coursework side of it, but the practical side is massive.
You’re the first UK gymnast to retain a world title…how to do feel about that?
Usain Bolt, Mo Farah, they’ve gone and they’ve reached the pinnacle of their career and they’ve kept going and they’ve done it again. That’s something I’ve really looked up to. So I feel like it’s one of my proudest achievements to retain that title and it makes me feel like I can go into next year with a lot of confidence because I took big risks in that competition and I did some really big upgrades and gave myself a big challenge, so to pull it off I felt really happy.
So were you shocked to get gold in Montreal?
My target was to do my routine and that was it. The build up wasn’t as perfect as I wanted, so my confidence wasn’t as high as it has been going into other competitions, but it was literally about giving it your best shot. At the end of that day, that’s all I can do. It was quite nerve-racking because it was actually my first competition back since Rio and it’d been over year. So for me there was a lot of pressure, but it was just about doing the best I possibly could and I’m just happy that it paid off.
And what’s next for you?
A big year – we’ve got three major championships. The first one, the Commonwealth Games is coming round in April and then you’ve got the European Championships in August and then the World Championships at the end of the year. I’ve only ever done three major championships once before and that was in 2014 and that was a really tough job so I need to make sure that I take a bit of a rest now, because next year is a big year.
What’s your pet peeve?
Bad manners. Like when you hold open a door for someone and they just walk through.
This feature was first published in the Echo newspaper on Friday, November 24, 2017: www.echo-news.co.uk