FRIENDS, family and proud supporters got one over on Olympic medallist Max Whitlock when they surprised him with a party on his return to Basildon .
The new poster boy of British gymnastics thought he was being dragged to the Holiday Inn, at the Festival Leisure Park , to view venues for girlfriend Leah Hickton’s forthcoming 21st birthday.
Little did he know it was all a cover-up for a huge surprise bash thrown in recognition of his amazing efforts at the Games.
The party, on Tuesday night, was just hours after he was given a hero’s welcome when he returned to Basildon’s Sporting Village, in Gloucester Park, where he trains at the South Essex Gymnastics Club.
Max, 19, said: “I walked into the room thinking it was just me, Leah and our families, but then all of sudden there were all these people cheering.
“The amount of support I’ve had is crazy. To me, gymnastics is just something I’m good at and enjoy. I’m just a normal person who has been to the Olympics – it’s all still a bit surreal at the moment.
“I feel so bad that I wasn’t able to sign autographs for all the children who turned out to support me at the gym, but I’m going to try to get round for them.”
Max had returned to his club to show off the two bronze medals he won at the London Games, one as part of Team GB’s men’s gymnastics team and the other as an individual finalist on the pommel horse.
Key figures from Basildon Council were at the party to greet him.
Mayor Mo Larkin said: “I was watching Max closely throughout the Olympics and he really was outstanding. “It’s so encouraging for young people, especially those in Basildon who have the opportunity to train in the sporting village, just like him.
“I’m going to use Max’s name whenever I visit schools, to give young people inspiration. He proves you achieve remarkable things if you work hard and put your mind to it.”
Council leader Tony Ball believes Max’s outstanding success proves the Sporting Village was a crucial investment for Basildon.
He said: “It’s absolutely wonderful what he has achieved. And what a lovely young man he is.
“Max getting an Olympic medal is great for Basildon. We got some criticism for the Sporting Village, but there is a lot of talk of the Olympic legacy and Max proves facilities like that are where it all happens.
“We don’t all have the potential to be Olympic medal winners, but Max has inspired young people to do the best they can.”