One Olympic silver medal. One Olympic bronze medal. Four National Championship titles.
With Olympic bronze and silver medals to his name, what’s the next goal for Jonathan Horton? Gold, of course. And the London 2012 Olympic Games could not be a more perfect opportunity for Horton to go for the gold. He is a top contender on the men’s high bar, as well as the all-around competition. But for Horton, there is one victory that would be sweeter than the rest: team competition.
At the age of 4, Horton started the sport of gymnastics the way most kids do. “I was really, really hyper,” Horton said. “My parents wanted to find a way to calm me down. And they’re small and thought I wasn’t gonna be very big so they threw me in gymnastics.”
He was a natural right from the start. Fourteen years later, he left his hometown gym, Cypress Academy, in Houston, and headed off to college at Oklahoma University.
Horton entered OU in the fall of 2004, and got right to work impressing the collegiate world. In his freshman year alone, he took home 10 event titles, as well as the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and NCAA all-around titles.
Horton was named to the U.S. Senior National Team for the first time in his freshman year. His success continued the following year when he took home 13 event titles and six all-around titles, one of which was at the Tyson American Cup, an international competition.
For those who weren’t already impressed with Horton by his junior year, he began to prove his dominance in the sport by setting records at OU. He broke Bart Conner’s record for career NCAA titles, and became the first man to win consecutive American Cup all-around titles since Blaine Wilson had done so in 1998 and ’99.
“What I really got out of college was experience,” Horton said. “When you’re competing in college, it’s back-to-back competitions for four years, so I really got a lot of experience out of it.”
Horton attracted the most attention in his senior year, which would lead right up to the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. While he slid down to a fifth-place finish at the Tyson American Cup, he came away from the 2008 Visa Championships with a silver all-around medal, and led his OU team to its fifth national title in seven years.
“I had a great team, and I attribute a lot of my success to the team and the coaches,” Horton said. “I picked OU because of its ability to really support the athletes, not only academically but with sport.”
Beijing: Team Success
After proving to the rest of the nation, as well as international competitors, that he was a serious threat all-around, Horton went into U.S. Olympic Trials expecting to be named to the Olympic team…but he didn’t think it would happen on the day of the meet.
“I didn’t expect them to name anyone on that day,” Horton said. “I thought they were gonna make their decisions the next day, after the selection committee had sat down and discussed it. So when they did that it was a shock and I was really excited.”
Once the remaining gymnasts were chosen, the team included Horton, Paul Hamm, Morgan Hamm, Joseph Hagerty, Justin Spring, and Kevin Tan. The six-member team was set, and looked like a promising contender for a team gold medal…that is, until 2004 Olympic all-around champion Paul Hamm withdrew from the team because of an injured left shoulder. Ten days later, Paul’s twin brother, Morgan Hamm, withdrew from the team due to an ankle injury. Alternates Raj Bhavsar and Alexander ‘Sasha’ Artemev replaced the two, but it looked like the team had lost any hope of earning a medal in Beijing.
“At first, everybody was like, ‘Well shoot, you just lost the reigning Olympic champion and his twin brother, who’s just as good,’ ” Horton said. “The team was a little worried, and the media came down on us hard. But we used that negativity to fuel us to prove everybody wrong.”
The team ignored the fact that the Hamm twins had ever been on the team, and learned to bond as one with its new members. They set out to show the world what Team USA is really made of and win a medal, regardless of color.
“Don’t hold back – that was our team motto,” Horton said. “We’ve got nothing to lose, let’s go out there and do whatever we can do.”
On Aug. 12, that is exactly what the team did. The question of a medal was still uncertain, until Team USA had finished its fourth event and was solidly in second place behind the Chinese team. At that point, only some serious mistakes would cost them a medal…and it came close to that.
On Team USA’s fifth rotation, floor exercise, Hagerty stepped out of bounds twice. The team slipped into third place behind Japan. Team USA’s sixth rotation, pommel horse, could not have been more of a nailbiter.
Tan and Bhavsar were the first Americans up on pommel horse. “Our first couple pommel horse routines were rough,” Horton said. “Our guys were a little nervous, but we were like, ‘Okay, we still got this.’ ”
They would need Artemev to pull off the routine of a lifetime to hold on for the bronze medal.
“I remember watching Alexander, on pommel horse,” Horton said. “We were all just, hands over our eyes, because he’s one of the best pommel horse guys in the world, but he also has one of the riskiest routines you could ever do.”
Artemev came through in the clutch. “After he got down, we went nuts,” Horton said.
The six Olympic rookies proved the world wrong and proudly accepted their bronze medals.
Beijing: Flying Solo
The team competition was not the end of Horton’s first Olympic experience. Two nights later, he competed in the all-around competition, where he finished in ninth place.
Five nights after the all-around, Horton had one more shot at winning another medal. For the first time in his life, he had qualified for an international event final.
“When I made the high bar final I was like, ‘Sweet, this is cool to be in this,’ ” Horton said. “When I really started thinking about it, I thought, ‘Wait, I don’t want to just be in this, I want to try to win this thing!’ ”
Just two days before the high bar final, he decided to make a few drastic changes to his routine, and throw in skills he had never performed before in competition.
“My coach said, ‘You’re nuts, you could go out there on live TV and the world could watch you fall on your face if you try this,’ ” Horton said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, well, go big or go home, right?’ ”
It was do-or-die time for Horton, who was risking everything – including injury – to have a chance at earning a medal.
“I remember looking at the judges and raising my hand to go, thinking, ‘Alright, here we go, nothing to lose,’ ” Horton said. “I finished that routine, and at the end of it my coach jumped like five feet in the air. He couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe it. As soon as I hit the ground, we knew I was gonna win gold or silver because of that routine.”
Horton’s high-flying high bar routine, which will be remembered by gymnasts, coaches, and spectators for years to come, earned him a silver medal.
“It was amazing – to be in the Olympics and win one medal is awesome, but to win two is pretty indescribable,” Horton said. “I look back on it and I can’t believe that happened. It’s one of the greatest things you could do – to represent your country, and bring home a medal for them.”
Looking to London
The year after the Games, many elite athletes tend to stop competing, either for good or just for the season. Some continue to train and compete, but not as hard as before because of their ‘Olympic high,’ giving them poor results.
Things were no different for Horton, who had one of the worst seasons of his career in the 2009 season, both nationally and internationally.
“I didn’t even do well in the U.S. until nationals, which was one of the last events of the year,” Horton said. “After that, I went to World Championships and had a disaster again.”
But between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Horton must have found some time to re-energize and refocus on a new motivation: London 2012.
“This year I won my first World Cup,” Horton said. “I went to Paris, won a World Cup medal on rings and high bar, which is awesome. Winning a World Cup medal in gymnastics is really special.”
He also won silver at the Tyson American Cup, and he and his teammates walked away from the Japan Cup with bronze. An impressive feat, considering they came in last place the year before.
“Not only myself, but the U.S. team in general, is doing good right now,” Horton said. “And I’m feeling pretty confident and in shape and I’m excited about Visa Nationals.”
As the reigning U.S. champion, the pressure is on for Horton to defend his title at this year’s Visa National Championships, Aug. 11-14, in Hartford, Conn. “I feel like that pressure can only be good for me,” Horton said. “I like knowing everybody’s looking for my spot. It motivates me and makes me work harder in the gym every day.”
Horton’s competitors on the national team said they’re definitely motivated by his success in Beijing, and enjoy having a bit of friendly competition with their friend.
“Even if we’re just practicing skills, we’re always competing with each other, regardless,” said Danell Leyva, 2009 U.S. high bar champion. “We’re always laughing and joking around. We’re always pulling the best out of each other, and it’s an awesome feeling.”
Horton wouldn’t have it any other way, who says the team competition takes precedence over the all-around for him any day.
“The most satisfying gold medal that could ever possibly be won is with your team,” Horton said. “There is no better feeling than standing on top of the podium with your national anthem playing and you have four or five of your teammates around you.”
Horton said this vision of team gold in London is his “driving force” for the next two years.
"Looking at my teammates, big smiles on our faces, and just hearing our national anthem play and knowing that not one of us did it by ourselves, but that we all did it together, I think that would be incredible.”
Horton believes that the 2012 team will have a more realistic shot at that gold medal than any U.S. team has before.
“We keep getting better, and better and better,” Horton said. “The motivation of our team is trickling down from the top to the bottom, and people are starting to understand the sport more. Right now, our toughest competitors are Japan and China, and they are incredible but we can beat them if we keep working as hard as we are now.”
The only American man to ever win an Olympic all-around gold medal, Paul Hamm, had retired from the sport after withdrawing from the Olympic team in 2008. But last week, he announced he was leaving his finance job to return to the gym and start training full-time again. This news gave Horton even more confidence that his goal could come true in two years.
“My lifelong dream is an Olympic team gold,” Horton said. “I think Paul gives us the ability to do that, so as soon as I heard that he was coming back I got amped up and I got excited about the idea that we’ve got that one more all-arounder in the United States to give us that edge.”
Aside from that nagging desire to stand atop the podium with his teammates, the one thing keeping Horton’s fire burning until London is the Olympic spirit.
“I remember what it was like in Beijing, where everywhere you went it felt like the Olympics,” Horton said. “I can’t explain it, but there’s just that Olympic feel and I want that again. I need to feel that because I almost forget what it was like. I didn’t soak it up enough the first time, so I want it again.”
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