Willow Whitlock may have just turned two but it seems gymnastics is in the genes. ‘Honestly, you can’t keep up with her,’ smiles her double Olympic champion dad, Max Whitlock.
‘She did her first preschool gymnastics class on Tuesday. She is already doing forward rolls, which is pretty cool. She knows the tuck, pike and straddle shapes. She has got her own little leotard. She is doing really well.
‘I’ve always said gymnastics is one of the best starting sports to help learn about your body and become more agile.
Max Whitlock’s two-year-old daughter Willow has already got into gymnastics after attending her first lesson
‘I feel very proud that I’ve been part of a generation in which we’ve turned it into a sport where it can be a career. So if that’s something Willow wants to do as she gets older, we will give it a go. As the years go by, we will see how she progresses.’
First-time father Whitlock was hoping his daughter would get to witness her new passion first hand at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, when he will be defending his two titles. Because of coronavirus countermeasures, though, overseas spectators are banned from visiting Japan – and that includes the families of athletes.
‘It’s been a long time where I’ve been at home and I’ve been really fortunate to get that time with Willow, so going away will be difficult,’ the 28-year-old tells Sportsmail. ‘It’s something I’ve always struggled with and this is going to enhance it.
‘But my wife Leah was already thinking about not coming with her before they announced the changes, and I think it’s the right decision. It might sound selfish, but I would prefer them to be at home so I don’t have to worry about where they are in Tokyo and what they are doing.
Max Whitlock says ‘she knows the tuck, pike and straddle shapes and has her own little leotard’
Whitlock was hoping his daughter would get to witness her new passion first hand at Tokyo
‘If I know they are at home watching me and having a nice time in a comfortable environment, that’s good enough for me. When Willow sees me on TV now, she recognises me and says “Dad”, not even “Daddy”. So it will be nice for her to be able to see me doing gymnastics.
‘It’s a shame she won’t be able to come to Tokyo, but she is a huge push for me trying to go on at the top level of the sport for as long as I can, so she can watch me in the biggest competitions.’
Whether Willow will even see her dad on TV, though, remains to be seen. Japan is being gripped by a fourth wave of coronavirus cases and a government minister admitted this week that cancelling the Games was still an option.
‘It goes without saying that there is going to be difficulties,’ admits Whitlock. ‘But I’m very positive, everything is telling me that it’s going ahead.
‘A lot has been put in place to make sure it is as safe as possible. I know Team GB are doing a lot of work on that and we have got our own block dedicated to GB at the Olympics.’
Whitlock will get a trial run of what living in an athlete bubble – and away from Willow – is like when he travels to Basel on Sunday for the European Championships, which begin on Wednesday.
It his first international competition since winning a third pommel horse title at the World Championships in Stuttgart in October 2019 and, while he is a four-time European champion, it is a step into the unknown.
His family will be unable to attend as overseas supporters have been prevented from attending
Whitlock knows he will be deemed a failure should he come away with anything but gold
‘It’s been 18 months, that’s a very long time to not compete and that does play a huge part,’ says Whitlock. ‘I feel in a good place physically but I am slightly rusty in terms of competitions.
‘The Europeans are really important. It’s a big stepping stone and hopefully a big confidence boost going into Tokyo.’
Should Tokyo go ahead as planned, Whitlock knows he will be deemed a failure should he come away with anything but gold. Winning both the pommel and floor on one glorious day in Rio five years ago instantly made him a household name. But with it has brought greater expectation.
‘The pressure has completely rocketed through the roof,’ admits Whitlock. ‘People don’t look at the challenges and the breaks in preparation. They expect me to come back with the gold.
‘I think it was really shown in 2018. That year I didn’t get gold in the pommel horse in the Commonwealth Games. I got silver and I was seen as a failure for the whole of 2018.
‘It is hard to get away from that expectancy, that if I don’t bring back gold, I have failed. That is really tough as a gymnast because anything can happen on the day. The difference between gold and silver can be the tiniest margin ever.
‘But if we flip it on its head, there are a lot more people behind me than before, wanting me to bring back something so they can feel proud to be British.
Whitlock is already a double Olympic champion and is now dealing with the pressure
‘I definitely feel old but I am still going, I am still there, I am still improving. I am still fighting for those titles at 28-years-old when a lot of people would have been retiring now. I don’t want to retire any time soon. I am looking to go to Tokyo and I want to go to Paris and beyond.’
A strong showing by Whitlock and his team-mates in Tokyo would be timely for British Gymnastics, given the governing body’s reputation has been ripped to shreds by the recent accounts of abuse from young gymnasts.
As one of the sport’s poster boys, Whitlock has been saddened by the scandal. But now he wants to help ensure it never happens again.
‘The gymnasts talking out is the great thing,’ he adds. ‘It shows a lot of bravery and shows a lot where the sport is moving towards, that they feel confident now to speak out. Sometimes something like this needs to happen for it to be better for the future generations.
‘As the older one in the team, I do care about a lot of the gymnasts coming through. If there are any ways that I can help, I would talk to anybody about it. That is a role I am happy to take on my shoulders and help anyone coming through the ranks. Hopefully there won’t be any issues like this again.’