MAX Whitlock will begin his quest for gold at Rio 2016 when he returns to action this weekend for the first time since his London 2012 heroics.

The pommel horse specialist will be the star attraction at the English Championships at the Europa Centre in Kent on Saturday afternoon.

It will be the first time he has competed since claiming two bronze medals at last summer’s Games, and he admits he is raring to go.

He said: “I’ve had a long break and a long build up to this competition, so hopefully that will pay off on the day — because gymnastics always comes down to how you go on the day.

“But I’m in good shape and happy with my routines so I’m definitely ready.

“Before the Olympics it was about trying to prove myself to everyone, but now it’s more about meeting people’s expectations, and that does bring a bit more pressure.

“My main goal is Rio now, of course, but first I know I need to get European places through competitions like this to make sure I am in position to get one of those places when Rio comes around.”

Whitlock and South Essex club-mate Reiss Beckford will be aiming to secure one of six spots on the Great Britain team for the European Championships in Moscow in April at this weekend’s competition.

Whitlock will look to underline his status as one of the world’s best pommel workers, especially in the absence of superstar Louis Smith, who said last month he is considering retiring from the sport.

Smith led the British men into an Olympic all-round final for the first time in 88 years in London, and Whitlock admitted he would love to lead the team in Rio.

Whitlock said: “Louis was a great captain for us in London and I know how much it meant to him. So I’d love to lead the team in Rio — it would be a dream come true and an honour.”

Whitlock will also use the competition to develop his growing reputation on the floor, and move towards recognition as a top level all-rounder.

Beckford will be in contention on the high bar and rings as he bids to return to the GB set-up.

Brinn Bevan will step up to the senior ranks alongside Anthony Wise as part a healthy contingent from the Basildon Sporting Village-based South Essex club.

Their main competition is likely to come from Huntingdon Gymnastics Club’s Daniel Keatings, who was bitterly disappointed to miss out on an Olympic place, and Sam Oldham, who was part of that historic bronze medal winning team with Whitlock, Smith, Dan Purvis and Kristian Thomas in London.

Purvis is Scottish so will not compete and Thomas is away in America, so the South Essex team will have a good chance of podium places.

South Essex also has Nathan Adams and Douglas Turnball competing in the Boys Age Group category on Friday, and Hayden Skinner, Dominic Sesto, Josephine Tang and Karis Maskell in the Junior Age Group on Sunday.

FitzWimarc pupil Karis, 11, trains five days a week at the Sporting Village and has spent two years on British Gymnastics development squad.

South Essex’s director of coaching Scott Hann said: “Karis is one of the many talented and dedicated youngsters we’ve got coming through and an example of what a great production line we’ve got here at our club.”