Passing the Torch: Jake Dalton and Steve Legendre
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PASSING THE TORCH- Part 1
By Susan Williams
For the Oklahoma men success is a way of life. Every World Championship team since 2001 has included at least one of Mark Williams’ athletes, and the OU head coach has guided medalists at the last two Olympic Games—current assistant coach Guard Young in ’04 and Jonathan Horton in ’08—along with winning five NCAA titles in the past decade.
As London nears, the Sooner talent pool has never been deeper. OU athletes have dominated the last two World Championship teams, including the 2011 bronze medal-winning squad. The three Sooners on the 2010 team—Horton, Chris Brooks and Steven Legendre—increased to five in Tokyo, with Alex Naddour and Jake Dalton joining the group. (Brooks was the alternate in ‘11.)
Grads Horton and Brooks now train in their hometown of Houston under the tutelage of Tom Meadows, also a former OU gymnast and both boys one-time junior coach. Naddour left school shortly after last year’s Worlds to return home to Arizona and focus on an Olympic bid with his father as his coach. While all still consider themselves Sooners, it is Legendre and Dalton training together in Norman, and both hope to earn a ticket to London.
The training partners and close friends share many things, including their best events: floor and vault. Legendre, a three-time World team member, has made floor finals in each of his appearances, the only U.S. athlete to advance on an event in all three Championships. Dalton, a two-time World team member, joined Legendre in the Tokyo floor finals and more recently earned the NCAA all around crown.
INSIDE sat down with the tumbling twosome as they prepared for St. Louis and San Jose, in hopes of earning a trip to London.
INSIDE GYMNASTICS: As you gear up for this final Olympic push, how is training going and where do you think you are?
STEVEN LEGENDRE: We’ve got a week or so left before Nationals and we are just trying to perfect and polish; doing a lot of routines and training hard. Other than that, it’s just mental at this point. We are trying to focus on the task at hand but, at the same time, not make that the only thing you’re thinking about, because that can be exhausting. I think that’s my toughest challenge.
JAKE DALTON: The trick is to go into this and think it’s just another Visas. Just another meet. Obviously, that’s harder to do this year, but I just try and stay focused.
INSIDE: Being so close to your lifelong dream, how can you keep the Olympic Games from being the only thing on your mind?
LEGENDRE: For me, it’s nothing crazy, or exciting—just the little things. Relax. Watch a movie. Play with the dogs … Things like that.
Actually, Jake and his girlfriend hang out with my fiancée and I quite a bit. We all get together and cook dinner, watch some TV, maybe a movie. Little things to get your mind off the gym.
INSIDE: Steve, you might have gone overboard on the distraction front. You graduated from Oklahoma in May, you are engaged to trampoline National Team member Alaina Williams and the two of you, along with your three dogs, recently moved into a home you built, all while attempting Olympic bids. Plus, you’ve been serving as her coach this past year, working with her after your own workout each day. Do you think you have enough going on?
DALTON: [Laughs] Geez, I just sound lazy.
LEGENDRE: I guess you could say I’ve taken on a lot, but I like it like that.
I’ve learned a lot watching Alaina. It’s been unfortunate in that she’s had ongoing ankle injuries for the last three years, so I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to train consistently. I think maybe I appreciate coaching a little more, too.
I [also] think I’ve learned that not everyone sees everything the same way I do. That not everyone is wired the same way, you could say. I’ve had to learn to be more open-minded, I guess.
[Pauses then laughs] Now, you better find a way to write that, that doesn’t get me in trouble.
DALTON: [Laughing] Yeah, I wondered where you were going with that.
INSIDE: Speaking of … Jake, you’ve been dating Kayla Nowak, a member of the OU women’s team, since shortly after you both arrived at Oklahoma. She’s had her own competitive ups and downs, including having to undergo hand surgery and sit out the last few meets of this season. What kind of impact did that have?
DALTON: When we do things like jump from one side of the pit to the other, Mark is always freaking out like, ‘Be careful!’ We are always joking around and giving him a hard time like, ‘What are you talking about? Relax.’
Seeing [what happened to Kayla] just reminds you that anything can happen at any time. That makes me appreciate how healthy I’ve been, but also [reminds me] that you always need to be mindful.
INSIDE: Do you think the fact that your significant others are also both gymnasts is a coincidence?
DALTON: No, not really. I think the fact that [Kayla] knows how much time and effort I put into this is a big deal. Going through Worlds together last year was an experience for us. Now she knows how I react, how I function, when I’m competing at the highest level. She understands it and she helps me not get so stressed out.
And in terms of nutrition she eats really well, so she’s helped me out a lot with that. I think that was a big help and why I did so much better last year. She’s taught me the way, nutritionally.
LEGENDRE: Yeah, when Alaina moved here to Oklahoma I got a lot [leaner]. [Laughs] I’m not always happy about it, but I know it’s good for me.
In terms of gymnastics, I think that Alaina and I both have the same philosophy and we understand each other’s goals and dreams. We just want to be able to go out there and do the gymnastics we are capable of. Leave everything out on the floor and let the chips fall.
INSIDE: Speaking of support, there were five OU athletes on last year’s World Championship team. Does it benefit you that so many of the other 2012 favorites are also, or were also, Sooners?
DALTON: I think it was really exciting all of us making that team so that we could be out there together. It was such a special experience medaling with so many of our guys on that team. I think it says something about the program and what Mark has going on here.
We were all very comfortable with each other and I think it made it a very close team, that knew how to work well with each other, because we all came from the same background and had a lot of the same experiences.
It was one of the best experience I’d ever had competing and I know I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.
LEGENDRE: I think it shows that we are doing something right.
As for benefit, having guys that you train with on a daily basis, or have trained with on a daily basis in the past, out there on the floor with you, makes you feel a little more comfortable. Familiar voices, familiar faces … When you are out there, raising your hand, you just don’t feel as nervous. It feels more like home.
INSIDE: What’s your relationship like with the three athletes that no longer train on campus: Horton, Brooks and Naddour?
LEGENDRE: I think it’s great. We all hang out together at competitions, we text each other. Brooks comes up here and works out with us every once in a while and that always gives us a boost. I think it’s a really positive relationship all around.
DALTON: I came [to OU] right after Jon left, actually, so I never got to train with him here, but I always looked up to him, and his medaling at the Olympics was part of what drew me here. He was where I wanted to be. Being on the World team brought us all closer and I still think we have that shared experience. There is definitely the OU family.
LEGENDRE: When I came in, Jon was one of my mentors. The team captain. Then Brooks was my team captain, and then I was the team captain [for Jake and Alex]. So we are all sort of just passing it along.
DALTON: When Steve was our captain I looked up to him. This year Alex and I were supposed to be captains. When I had to step up and kind of lead the team, [after Alex left,] I sort of mimicked what Steve had done for me, because I know that helped me so much.
Alex and I are still friends. We still text. It’s all good.
INSIDE: How does your experience as captains of an NCAA team translate to being part of a World or Olympic team?
DALTON: I think it really helped me. I took being an example to the other guys really seriously. Mostly, I learned to control my emotions better. If you get angry, you can’t come off an event and yell or hit something. That just hurts the team.
I learned a lot about myself being a captain. It was about more than just me. Every day I asked myself, ‘How can I help the team?’
I think my relationship with Mark also grew. He trusted me to be a leader on the team, and I had to trust the plan he had for the team and make sure everyone else trusted it, too. I think I grew up a little, and saw it more from his perspective.
Being a captain just put everything into perspective for me and helped get me on the right path. I feel a lot stronger, mentally and physically, now.
LEGENDRE: I see nothing but positives for NCAA athletes, in general. We are trying to make the Olympic team. It’s a team goal. A team dream. I think competing for a college team, or being the captain of a college team, helps you understand what that team concept is all about.
I think that’s something that gymnasts who are used to training as individuals don’t really get until they’re out there on that World or Olympic floor. They have to learn on the job, where as we come with built-in experience. Success as an individual is great, but success as a team is taking it to that next level.
INSIDE: Five current and former OU athletes are vying for spots on a five-man Olympic team and it’s very unlikely that all five of you will make it. How do you deal with that in-house competition?
LEGENDRE: We know the reality that some of us will be on the team, and some of us won’t. We all want the team to be the best it can be. We root for each other and, in may ways, those are our brothers out there.
But, honestly, I think most of the time we try not to even think about it. We hang out and joke around and everything is exactly the same until we get out on the floor, and then we all know we are going to do the best job we can.
DALTON: It’s always a competition, but we are still friends, no matter what happens. They cheer for us, we cheer for them.
INSIDE: What are the positives and negatives of you two training together for this goal?
DALTON: I can tell you the positive: we push each other. We are good on the same events and we watch each other. It makes you want to push your limits. I think we are always competing, in a fun, friendly manner.
We have become such good friends that we have fun in the gym, every day. It’s made us the best we can be.
To be honest, I can’t see any negatives, at least for me. Steve has helped me so much the past three years.
LEGENDRE: I agree. I don’t see any negatives. I think our training situation is awesome.
We are constantly aware of where we need to be. We are on the same plan, so we peak at the same time, and we are always watching what the other does in the gym. We are teammates, but competitors at the same time. It’s a boost of confidence to see how close I am to him, because I know he’s good. To have that benchmark every day in training is amazing.
Honestly, I think I’d feel a little lost without that. A little out of the loop. It’s too easy to become [complacent.] To think that you’re doing enough, if you’re the best guy in the gym. [Laughs] I don’t have that problem. Competing [alongside] Jake every day, I can always look over and see one of the best guys in the world, and know I’ve got to keep working harder and harder if I want to keep up. He doesn’t let me rest.
Stay tuned this week for the continuation of Passing the Torch- Jake Dalton and Steve Legendre and all the Inside updates from Visa Championships in St. Louis! Join the conversation on our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/insidegymnastics & on Twitter @insidegym ! Be sure to celebrate with us in 2012--our 10th Anniversary! www.subscribeig.com
Photos- Grace Chiu
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