Britain's greatest ever gymnast Max Whitlock may have won two Olympic gold medals – but he reveals that welcoming his baby daughter Willow is his greatest ever achievement. "Results are so important to me – gym is what I’ve done since I was seven years old – but having a child is like nothing else, and the feeling is crazy," he exclusively told HELLO! magazine in an exclusive shoot and interview with his wife Leah at their Essex home. "Willow is definitely my proudest achievement. She's so happy and already smiling – it's definitely not just wind! – and she’s just such a chilled baby. We’re very lucky."
Max has won two Olympic gold medals
Max is one of Team GB's biggest medal hopefuls for Tokyo 2020. He's a four-time Commonwealth champion, three-time European champion and double world champion, and has two Olympic golds to his name – medals that little Willow is seeing for the first time on HELLO!'s photoshoot. But despite his glittering sporting CV, the 26-year-old said becoming a dad is his greatest achievement. "Results are so important to me – gym is what I've done since I was seven years old – but having a child is like nothing else, and the feeling is crazy. Willow is definitely my proudest achievement. She's so happy and already smiling – it's definitely not just wind! – and she's such a chilled baby. We’re very lucky."
Leah, who married her childhood sweetheart in the summer of 2017, said she was very Zen throughout her pregnancy, which may have contributed to the little one's calm demeanour – that and hypnobirthing classes, which taught the couple how to embrace labour rather than fear the pain. "When you see people giving birth on TV, as soon as the contractions start it's all stress and all go and straight to the hospital. It wasn't like that for us at all," said Max. "It was all quite chilled out. Nothing at all like EastEnders!" The classes also gave Max a clear and defined role during the delivery. "The man often feels useless the whole time, but what was a game- changer for me was that I dealt with talking to the midwives and left Leah to do her own thing. Knowing that I was there to help her gave me a purpose."
The couple spoke exclusively to HELLO!
Leah had her headphones on for a lot of the labour: "I was listening to a Destiny’s Child album, Survivor, and concentrating on my breathing." She used gas and air until she was 9cm dilated, at which point it was time to push. But when the baby's heart rate starting to drop, Leah was taken to theatre for a forceps delivery. Even the emergency wasn't enough to panic the chilled-out mum-to-be. "Within ten minutes of having an epidural there was no pain any more, and everyone was so relaxed in there that I wasn’t worried at all," she said. Max, though, was "a bit scared". "I was shocked," he nodded. "I had to wait outside in my hospital gown for Leah to have her epidural before I went in, and that took so long." He was present when Willow made her entrance and was tasked with cutting the cord. "I can’t describe the feeling I had when she was born – it was surreal. When I held her I couldn't believe she was our baby."
Although they’d been told they were expecting a daughter, the couple were keen to check that she was, in fact, a girl. Explained Leah: "We did a scan at 16 weeks because we couldn't wait to find out the sex and got told we were having a boy. Then at 20 weeks we had our routine scan and they said: 'It's not a boy, it's a girl.' I cried because I was in shock and then I was like: 'Oh my God, I’m having a little girl, that’s so lovely.' Then at 28 weeks we had another scan privately and they said: 'You've got a boy in there.' At a 4D scan a few weeks later they said it was 99.9% a girl. We didn’t know what was going on." Added Max: "So when Willow came out we were like: 'Is it a girl?'" "If not," said Leah, "we would have had a lot of pink clothes to take back!"
Max celebrated winning Olympic gold with a fist pump
This week Max will be competing at the Gymnastics British Championships in Liverpool with his newest cheerleader in tow. "I wanted to have children young, when I was still doing gymnastics, because I want them to see what I do rather than for them to just hear the stories. Standing out in an arena in the middle of a competition with thousands of people watching – the thought of taking her onto that stage and giving her that experience is amazing. And it will 100% spur me on knowing she and Leah are in the crowd. Having a baby puts a lot of things into perspective and it's motivated me so much already. I’m doing it for her now as well. It’s a really nice feeling." Being a first-time dad has its challenges, though. "I used to get ten to 12 hours' sleep a night, so getting up with Willow the first few nights hit me like a ton of bricks." Said Leah: "Max was going back to training, so I said I'd stay up that night, and he got six hours solid. And he thought it was brilliant." "I felt fresh – so, so fresh," beamed Max. "Maybe I was having too much sleep before."
Max isn't known for displays of emotion – he celebrated winning Olympic gold with a reserved fist pump – but Leah says that becoming a dad has brought out a different side to him. "Seeing him with our little girl – I can’t even explain. He’s so good with her, even the way he talks to her. He wants to do the nappy changes, and he's better than me at changing her vest. Having a baby brings you closer, love-wise, but you have to make time for each other, too. "For two days it was non-stop and we didn't even have a conversation – then we realised and had a little cuddle on the sofa. It’s important to get the balance right and make time for each other." Said Max: "The whole experience of Leah giving birth was unreal. To say I'm proud of her is an understatement because, as a guy, you can’t even comprehend what that must be like. We love each other more now and in a slightly different way."
Willow will be enrolled in gymnastic classes at the earliest opportunity
Max and Leah will be enrolling Willow in gymnastics classes at the earliest opportunity. "I don’t think we could not," said the couple, whose aim with their business is to engage one million children in gymnastic activities by 2022 – something they're passionate about, as there are now huge waiting lists at gymnastics clubs around the country in the wake of London 2012 and Rio 2016, which "isn't good enough", said Max. "We're so grateful for every opportunity we’ve had through gymnastics," he said. "We have so many friends, we met each other through it, and being involved in a sport like gym teaches you discipline." Max received an MBE for services to gymnastics at Buckingham Palace in February 2017. "I was more nervous about meeting the Queen than becoming a dad," he laughed.
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