U.S. Men Going For Gold
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Team USA’s bronze medal performance in Beijing is “just a taste” of the gymnastics they’re capable of, according to stars Jonathan Horton and Sasha Artemev.
Going into the Beijing Games, having lost superstars Paul and Morgan Hamm due to injury, not much was expected of the U.S. men. But, midway through the team finals, Team USA led the world and, in the end, the group that contained two one-time alternates (Sasha Artemev never even got to train on the Olympic equipment before the Games began), stunned the world by claiming bronze.
“For me, that bronze medal was just a taste of what this team can do,” says Jonathan Horton, the only U.S. man to medal individually in Beijing. “For me, that was the most exciting day of gymnastics in my entire life. I have this vision of success [three] years from now, especially with these new guys on the team—we’ve got a lot of young talent. Once they figure out what it’s about and how to compete for [the] USA I think we’re going to have a lot of success.”
And that’s a learning curve that could prove steep. In the USA’s first team meet since the Games, last month’s Japan Cup, Horton led an inexperienced squad—Steven Legendre, up-and-comer Danell Leyva, Tim McNeill and Sho Nakamori—that finished sixth, last amongst the competing teams.
“In Japan, all the guys on the team were [looking at me] and going ‘What do we do in this situation? How do we calm down? Help us out a little bit,’” says Horton of the error-filled performance. “I think it’s kind of nice these guys trust us. They’re looking at my gymnastics and my success and they’re asking questions, wanting to know how they can be successful also.
“I really learned how to compete and how to be a confident competitor in college,” adds Horton. “In college, having so many competitions back to back, one week after another, you really learn how to control yourself, control your emotions. I realized that when I get so hyped up it doesn’t necessarily work for me. [In college,] you have so many opportunities to learn what works and what doesn’t.”
The 1984 Olympic team, the only men’s squad to ever claim Olympic gold, celebrated the 25th anniversary of their Games win just last week. To top the podium in those boycotted, Los Angeles Games, the U.S. men had to defeat China, the reigning world champs, and perennial powerhouses Japan. A scenario that is likely to be repeated come 2012.
“Of course the Chinese and Japanese are extremely good,” Horton acknowledges. “They are great competitors and they have a lot of talent and they work extremely hard. Basically, what the U.S. team has to do—what we are doing—is we have to focus not only on our weaknesses, but continue to strengthen our strengths. There are events we are the best team in the world on and we have to continue to get better on those while, at the same time, we have to get a lot better on pommel horse and improve our form and execution [to] be able to compete like an Olympic champion team should. …We definitely have the potential to be the best team in the world.”
“After the last Olympics we were already discussing how we were going to get prepared for a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics,” adds Artemev. “…I believe it’s our time to shine and I think we’re going to, hopefully, lead this team to great new things. I feel confident we can, with our experience and these new guys, these young guys coming into the mix. We’ll see how far it goes, but I think we have great chances of getting that gold medal in London.”
The first step towards that dream is next week’s U.S. National Championships in Dallas, where a new men’s National Team will be formed and the push to London begins.
“I’ve had quite the experience, quite the year after the Olympics,” Horton says of starting the process all over again. “Graduating from college, moving to Houston, buying a new house, getting married and training with a new coach. After the Olympics, after Tour, it was such a high [and] I really tried to just sit back and enjoy the success the U.S. team had. Just relax my mind and body from gymnastics. After I took that break and let myself cut loose from the sport a little bit it was kind of tough for a month or two, when I started training hard again.
“There was a moment where I was sitting there, my body was hurting and I was thinking, ‘This is going to be really hard to get back into this thing,’” he concludes with a laugh. “But now, training is consistent again and I’ve been doing a lot of routines, a lot of conditioning. I’m in the gym about four or five hours a day. I’m definitely really pumped up and motivated again right now. I’m almost on that same high again as I was in the Olympics. Now, I’m just excited about being on the scene … [and] I think U.S. championships should be a good place to showcase my new skills and where I am in the sport right now.”
Where Horton, and the entire U.S. men’s team are now, is still a long way from where they want to be.
“As an individual I think I can be very successful in the all-around and maybe be a champion on a couple of individual events,” Horton says of his personal goals, before adding emphatically, “but we have that dream of standing on top of the medal podium in 2012 as a team with a gold medal wrapped around our neck. I’m 23 now and I still have a lot of years left in the sport. I feel like I can contribute and be a leader for the team. I have that dream in my head. … That’s what keeps me going.”
Having tasted the glory more than two decades ago, that dream of gold, the idea of returning to the top of the podium, is what keeps the entire U.S. men’s team motivated.
Photos by Grace Ghiu, for Inside Gymnastics
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