Willow Whitlock may have just turned two, but it seems like gymnastics is in her genes. “Honestly, you can’t follow her,” smiles her two-time Olympic champion dad, Max Whitlock.
“She took her first preschool gymnastics class on Tuesday. She’s already doing forward throws, which is pretty cool. She knows the forms of tuck, pike and overlap. She has her own little leotard. She is doing really well.
“I’ve always said gymnastics is one of the best starting sports for getting to know your body and becoming more agile.
Max Whitlock’s two-year-old daughter Willow has already taken to gymnastics after attending her first lesson
“I am very proud to have been part of a generation in which we have made it a sport where it can be a career. So if this is something Willow wants to do as she gets older, we’ll give it a try. Over the years, we will see how it evolves.
Her first-time dad, Whitlock, was hopeful his daughter would witness his newfound passion at the Tokyo Olympics this summer, when he defends both of his titles. Due to the coronavirus countermeasures, however, foreign spectators are not allowed to travel to Japan – and that includes the families of the athletes.
“ I’ve been home for a long time and I’ve really been lucky enough to spend time with Willow so leaving will be difficult, ” the 28-year-old told Sportsmail. “It’s something I’ve always struggled with and it’s going to improve it.
“ But my wife Leah was already thinking about not coming with her before announcing the changes, and I think it’s the right decision. It might sound selfish, but I would rather they were home so I didn’t have to worry about where they are in Tokyo and what they are doing.
Max Whitlock says ‘she knows the crease, pike and overlap shapes and has her own little leotard’
Whitlock hoped his daughter would witness his newfound passion in Tokyo
“If I know they’re home watching me and having a good time in a comfortable environment, that’s enough for me. When Willow sees me on TV now, she recognizes me and says “daddy”, not even “daddy”. So it will be good for her to be able to see me doing gymnastics.
“ It’s a shame that she can’t come to Tokyo, but she pushes me a lot to try to continue at the highest level of the sport for as long as I can, so that she can watch me in the biggest competitions. . “.
Whether Willow will even see her father on TV remains to be seen. Japan is grappling with a fourth wave of coronavirus cases and a government minister admitted this week that canceling the games was still an option.
“It goes without saying that there are going to be difficulties,” admits Whitlock. “But I’m very positive, everything tells me that things are going forward.
“A lot has been put in place to make sure it’s as safe as possible. I know the GB team is doing a lot of work on this and that we have our own dedicated GB block at the Olympics.
Whitlock will have a try 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 start on Wednesday.
This is his first international competition since winning a third pommel horse title at the Stuttgart World Championships in October 2019 and, if he is a quadruple European champion, it is a step in the unknown.
His family will not be able to attend as foreign supporters have been barred from participating
Whitlock knows he will be considered a failure if he walks away with anything other than gold
“It’s been 18 months, it’s been a long time not to compete and that plays a huge role,” says Whitlock. “I feel good physically but I’m a little rusty in terms of competitions.
“Europeans are really important. It’s a big stepping stone and hopefully a big boost in confidence in Tokyo. ”
If Tokyo were to move forward as planned, Whitlock knows he will be seen as a failure if he walks away with anything other than gold. Winning both the pommel and the floor on a glorious day in Rio five years ago instantly made him a household name. But with it brought greater expectations.
“The pressure has completely exploded through the roof,” admits Whitlock. “People don’t watch the challenges and the breaks in preparation. They expect me to come back with the gold.
“I think it really showed in 2018. That year I didn’t win gold on pommel horse at the Commonwealth Games. I got the money and was considered a failure for the whole of 2018.
“It’s hard to get out of this expectation that if I don’t bring in gold, I have failed. It’s really difficult as a gymnast because anything can happen during the day. The difference between gold and silver may be the smallest margin ever.
But if we knock him down, there are a lot more people behind me than before, who want me to bring something back to make them feel proud to be British.
Whitlock is already a two-time Olympic champion and now faces the pressure
“I feel really old but I keep going, I’m still here, I’m still improving. I’m still fighting for those titles at 28 when a lot of people would have retired by now. I don’t want to retire anytime soon. I am looking to go to Tokyo and I want to go to Paris and beyond.
A good performance from Whitlock and his teammates in Tokyo would be timely for British gymnastics, given that the governing body’s reputation has been torn by recent accounts of abuse from young gymnasts.
As one of the sport’s posters, Whitlock was saddened by the scandal. But now he wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
“The gymnasts who speak, that’s what’s great,” he adds. “ It shows a lot of courage and shows a lot where the sport is heading, that they now feel confident to speak out. Sometimes something like this has to happen for it to be better for future generations.
“ As the oldest on the team, I care about a lot of gymnasts coming in. If there are ways I could help, I would tell anyone about it. It’s a role I’m happy to take on and help anyone who moves up the ranks. Hope there will be no more problems like this.