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'They are starting to smell the top'
In 2006, as the USA women’s gymnastics team was earning a silver medal at the world championships and again propelling itself toward the top of the sport, the men’s team was on an entirely different trajectory: toward 13th place and the worst finish in its history in the sport.
It was a humiliating finish and an announcement to the world that the US was not a serious contender in men’s gymnastics. But a mere six years later, led by veteran Jonathan Horton, his memories of that failure and the lessons it imparted, the men’s team has a chance to reclaim respectability and mark this moment as one of the best in US history.
“Getting 13th and knowing you’re a part of the worst men’s gymnastics team in the history of our country, that was rough on me and on the rest of the team,” said Horton, now the veteran of the men’s team that heads into London next week as one of the favorites for gold. “But I think that was the most important of my entire career. I think that’s why I had success the next few years, and I think that’s why I’m still going.”
That is the promise of London: That six years can be the stretch between the darkest of days and brightest of moments for our men’s team.
“These guys have a natural fire in their belly,” said Steve Penny, the president of USA Gymnastics. “It’s amazing. They’re a special group of guys. We have as much depth on our men’s side as we do on our women’s side. It’s pretty exciting.”
It’s also true. The men who will compete in London — Jake Dalton, Danell Leyva, John Orozco, Sam Mikulak and Horton — all have the potential to medal as all-arounders.
“(Our depth) hurts the other teams,” Horton said. “China is so deep when it comes to specialists . . . our country, we’ve got four, five good all-arounders.”
That’s a recipe for perhaps fewer medals but a better shot at team gold.
Dalton won bronze in the all-around at the 2011 World Cup. Orozo was the all-around gold medalist at the 2012 national championships. Leyva won the gold in the all-around at the 2011 national championships. Horton won the all-around gold at the 2009 and 2010 national championships and won a silver medal on the horizontal bar at the Beijing Olympics. Mikulak won the all-around title at the 2011 NCAA Men’s Gymnastics championship.
“John Horton was the best all-around athlete in our country and was edged out at the worlds by two of our young guys who kept him out of the all-around,” Penny said.
Still, it’s been a bumpy road for the American men on their way to being serious contenders. The 2006 debacle was a historical failure. In 2008, the team earned the bronze in Beijing, but then in 2010 at the world championships, they missed out on the podium after finishing fourth. That’s a stretch not exactly worth celebrating.
“Men’s gymnastics is a whole different animal with respect to how the world fluctuates,” Penny said. “China and Japan have set a standard for excellence over the last few years, but last year after the qualifying round we were second behind Japan and ahead of China.
“We went into the team final with very strong aspirations that we would win gold. Our guys are not satisfied now with just being on the podium. They are starting to smell the top.”
There is a lot of competition and a history of struggle, but the American men could very well do something they haven’t since 1984: win a team gold.
“The team medal, the team gold medal, that’s my only goal,” Horton said. “If we go in there and win the team gold medal, it’ll be, ‘Done. Mission accomplished.’ We have the team to do that. We can get that gold, and that’s what we’re shooting for.”
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