By Ashlee Buhler

Stephen Nedoroscik woke up one night, dazed and confused. Where was he? Did he miss his flight to Kitakyushu? He crawls around on the floor, scrambling to locate his phone. Then his eyes meet the clock: It’s 11:30 p.m. There is no flight to Japan. And in that moment reality sets in: “Oh my god, I’m home. And I’m a freakin’ World Champion.”

That just about sums up what the last few weeks have felt like for Nedoroscik, who recently became the first pommel horse World Champion ever in U.S. gymnastics history. But it’s an opportunity he nearly missed all together.

First came the Worlds Selection Camp in Colorado Springs. Nedoroscik feared having to withdraw from the competition after battling vocal cord dysfunction, a condition where the vocal cords close when they are supposed to be open. “The feeling of that feels like suffocation, which induces a lot of anxiety,” Nedoroscik said. “I was up all night thinking I was choking. It was terrible.” As a result, he missed several days of training and his endurance, he said, plummeted during that time.

Nevertheless, he persisted—determined to compete no matter what. The World Championships were his goal, especially after missing out on an Olympic berth just a few months prior. The pommel horse, the one and only event he does, is his forte. As a two-time NCAA Champion and the reigning U.S. National Champion on that event, there was no reason to doubt his abilities, even when his body was working against him. He trusted himself and the countless hours of training put in over the years.

When Nedoroscik saluted the judges at the selection camp, it was the first time he had done a routine in 12 days. But watching him, you’d never know it. On both days of competition, he put up scores that would have secured him a spot in the event finals in Tokyo, thus earning an automatic spot on the World team. He would leave in about a month.

Leading up to a World Championship, most athletes spend their days working diligently in the gym. Doing routine after routine, fine tuning all the little details so when the lights come up and the pressure is on, their best gymnastics is on display. Nedoroscik, however, spent his days bed-ridden with a 103-degree fever.

“It was just some bug that was going around, and I happened to get it despite being so careful because of COVID, so it’s kind of unbelievable  that I was able to pick it up,” he said. “I was sick for eight days and for six of those days I had a fever and no appetite. It’s the sickest I’ve ever been. I was completely bed-ridden, I missed a week of practice, and it completely delayed my travel plans. It was just a total mess.”

To board the plane for Japan, Nedoroscik had to be fever-free for 48 hours. In a race against the clock, his fever fortunately subsided in the nick of time. He landed in Tokyo, slept for the night, then flew to Kitakyushu the next afternoon. However, he was arriving four days after his intended arrival. Podium training, his one and only opportunity to touch the competition equipment before go-time, had already concluded. He also soon realized he forgot something important: the Rec Specs.

The Rec Specs are Nedoroscik’s trademark competition goggles. He received them as a joke from a teammate during Secret Santa his freshman year at Penn State. They have since become somewhat of a good luck charm when he competes.

“He lied to me and told me they cost $100, but they definitely only cost like $20,” Nedorscik said with a laugh. “He guilted me into wearing them. I didn’t wear them for the first couple of meets, but the first meet I did wear them I hit my routine and ended up beating the previous year’s NCAA Champion on pommel horse. So, I was like, ‘Dang, I have to wear them again and again.’ Sure enough, there’s some power to them.”

With his illness setting him behind schedule, Nedoroscik spent the day before his departure to Japan playing catch up. He had an apartment to clean, laundry to fold—and most importantly—bags to pack. Although he double checked to make sure he had everything he needed, the good-luck-goggles slipped his mind.

“It’s funny because the Rec Specs are on my trophy case and right in front of the trophy case was where I was folding all my clothes and putting them into the suitcase,” Nedoroscik said. “I just totally forgot about it until I landed in Tokyo. I went to my bag and was like, ‘Oh shoot. No way.’

But once again he didn’t fret. He trusted himself. “I accepted it immediately,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Aw shucks. I’m a dork.’ And I just moved on.” 

In his very first World Championships, Nedoroscik seemed to have all the odds stacked against him. A nagging wrist injury compounded the matter. Yet he never doubted his ability to get the job done. In hindsight, that may have been the key to his success in Kitakyushu.

“The one thing I kept 100% was my mentality,” Nedoroscik said. “When I got there, it was my first workout in over a week, and I had just traveled. I literally got off the plane and went to work out and it was terrible. But I didn’t get upset. I was totally understanding to myself, and I’m like, ‘Dude it’s okay. You just have to do what you can.’ I just had the right mindset for the whole week and that’s everything when it comes to competition.”

Nedoroscik was able to get three workouts in before competing in the qualification round. When all was said and done, he qualified into the pommel horse final in second.

When finals day arrived, Nedoroscik was ready to prove that absolutely nothing could get in his way. He went for an easier routine than planned; a split decision he felt would help his medal chances. The strategy was to go for clean consistency rather than difficulty. And in the end, it paid off. 

“Sitting there on the chair looking at my score and seeing my name go on top, it was just unbelievable… Feelings like that make the sport so addicting and that’s the reason I do it,” he said.

Nedoroscik made history, becoming the first pommel horse World Champion ever for Team USA. It’s also the first time in a decade that a World gold medal has been brought home by a U.S. gymnast on the men’s side—something that doesn’t happen very often. For some perspective, the last time a U.S. man brought home a gold medal from the World Championships was Danell Leyva on parallel bars in 2011 (which also ironically happened in Japan). Prior to that, the last time was Paul Hamm’s gold in the All-Around and floor in 2003.  

“It means everything to me. I’m so honored to be that person,” Nedoroscik said. “I didn’t even realize those sorts of statistics were on the line when I was competing. I’m really proud of how I competed and I’m really happy to make other people proud of me.”

To say the past year has been a wild ride for Nedoroscik would be an understatement. But it’s been a unique ride, nonetheless. As the only one event specialist on the U.S. National Team, Nedoroscik is proof that it’s possible for anyone to make it to the top. You don’t have to be an All-Around star or the one everyone has their eyes on.

“I was never the guy people thought would make national team or the guy to go out and win Worlds,” Nedoroscik said. “I wasn’t even recruited into NCAA. I didn’t get a single recruiting trip. If you believe in yourself and are willing to make sacrifices for gymnastics… because I’ve made so many, and look where I’m at. I’m telling you; anyone can step up to the plate and do what I’ve done.”

In the end, hard work and a positive mindset is enough to prevail. Now with a gold medal around his neck and his name in the history books—Stephen Nedoroscik is living proof of that.  

Photos by Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics; Volker Minkus/FIG

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