Sooner gymnasts prepared to help Team USA challenge for gold
Sooner gymnast Jake Dalton said he woke up Thursday morning feeling like a little kid on Christmas because he gets to compete in the Olympics. But he and his teammates won’t be expecting any presents when the 2012 Olympic Games open in three weeks in London.
Dalton is among five former or current Sooners selected by the U.S. men’s gymnastics Olympic team during trials last week, and Team USA has a daunting task ahead of it.
China and Japan are clear favorites, having dominated the sport for nearly a decade on the international stage and commanded respect in it for twice that long. China has taken gold at the last five world events, and Japan finished just behind the Chinese four of those years.
OU coach Mark Williams, who will serve as a personal coach to the Sooner gymnasts and could be named a Team USA assistant, said the Oklahoma troop is well aware of the challenge.
“We don’t want to let anyone down,” Williams said. “We want to put our best gymnastics on the floor and certainly have an opportunity to compete for medals. I definitely take that challenge to heart and know [the Sooner members] are going to be as ready as they could possibly be.”
One source of strength the team will draw from to overcome the pressure is former OU gymnast Jonathan Horton, who won team bronze and individual silver (horizontal bars) at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Dalton said.
During last year’s world championships in Tokyo, Horton guided Dalton through his first major international experience, when the U.S. team finished just 0.010 behind silver-finisher Japan, Dalton said.
“At that stage, there’s a lot of pressure on you,” Dalton said. “He helped me relax and told me a few things to keep my frame of mind at the right place. He’s the heart of the team right now.”
But pressure goes both ways.
A Team Japan assistant coach was in the stands watching the U.S. national trials, perhaps because the Americans and Japanese were separated by just a hair in 2011, former OU gymnast Steven Legendre said.
“They know we’re here; they know we’re knocking on the door,” Legendre said. “I think they’re all going to be feeling at least the pressure of what we’re able to do. I think it says something that they’re watching us and maybe a little bit concerned about the ability we have.
“We’re definitely making statements out on the gymnastics floor.”
Legendre was selected as a 2012 Team USA alternate. Despite just missing the cut, he said he plans to think and prepare as if he would be competing in London because anything can happen.
And it’s happened before.
In 2008, twin brothers Paul and Morgan Hamm — key members of the U.S. Olympic team — had to withdraw from competition due to injuries, which gave alternates Raj Bhavsar and Alexander Artemev the chance to perform.
“The unfortunate reality (about gymnastics) is it’s a dangerous sport and anything can happen,” Legendre said. “Myself and the other two alternates feel we’re in very important position to be 100-percent ready. If we need to go out there and compete, I think we’ll all be there.”
Former Sooners Chris Brooks and Alex Naddour join Legendre as alternates. The trio also joined Dalton and Horton on the 2011 U.S. national team.
Williams said it was bittersweet watching the U.S. national trials last weekend because not all five of his athletes made the team in a full capacity, but he said he was still proud of what they accomplished.
“In many ways, I like to feel like it’s an extension of what we’ve done throughout their careers here as Sooner athletes,” he said.
And this group has accomplished quite a bit for Oklahoma. Dalton alone won four national championships in four different events over the last two years. But although the Olympics often can be about individual accolades, this group is focused on winning as a team, Dalton said.
The United States has not captured team gold since 1984, when former OU gymnast Bart Connor led Team USA past the Chinese and Japanese.
“I’m always trying to think first and foremost of the team finals and coming out with a team gold,” Dalton said. “I think that’s very possible, and I think that’s what we all have in our mind right now as our goal.”