2008 silver medalist Horton still hungry for first Olympic gold medal
American gymnast Jonathan Horton has found a way to satisfy his golden appetite.
While preparing for the 2012 London Games, the most experienced member of the American men's gymnastics squad -- at just 26 years old -- has been incorporating a special ingredient into his daily routine. For the last year and a half, the 2008 individual Olympic silver medalist has knocked back a bottle of honey -- an item commonly used in gymnastics to increase the stickiness of the parallel bars -- during practice whenever he feels the need for a sudden energy boost.
"Really low blood sugar runs in my family," Horton explained over the phone during a recent morning drive to his Houston training gym. "I started trying to figure out ways to get rid of the shakes. Then one day I was doing parallel bars and I was like, 'Hey, we've got all this honey here, why don't I just eat some of that and see if it helps?' A couple minutes later, I felt amazing again, and so ever since then, throughout my workout, I'll just take little bits of honey and it makes me feel really good."
But the sweet nectar hasn't decreased his hunger for a first Olympic gold medal. The only remaining member from the 2008 bronze-winning Olympic team calls himself fully recovered from injuries (a torn ligament and two broken bones in his left foot) that he competed through in 2011 and ready to guide the U.S. to another podium finish.
A total of eight men will be selected for the team at the trials (starting Thursday in San Jose, Calif.) but three will be alternates, which leaves several genuine hopefuls at home among an abundance of talent. The shift to a five-member team is new for 2012. In the previous two Olympics, six-man squads were the standard, and seven represented their countries before that. While it's just a small tweak to the format, Horton called the change surprising when initially announced, and believes it could result in a big impact on the results.
"How do you have a five-man team when there are six events?" he said. "At least for the women, five people on the team and they've only got four events, but you'd at least hope for the men there'd be six of us. There's really no room to have specialists on the team because of that format. You really have to base the team on all-arounders now."
Fewer spots means tighter competition. It has not, however, led to a more cutthroat environment or straying from the primary goal of winning the first team gold since 1984, says the man who has been involved in gymnastics since he was 4 years old and competing since he was 6.
"Honestly, there is no rivalry whatsoever in men's gymnastics," said Horton, a favorite to repeat on the horizontal bar after a silver in Beijing. "Maybe it would make our sport a little more exciting if we all got mad at each other and were really big-time rivals, but when it comes down to it, it's incredible how much every single guy on our U.S. national team is into this whole team idea."
Besides Horton, 19-year-old John Orozco, the reigning national champion from the Bronx, N.Y., and national runner-up, 20-year-old Danell Leyva, who defected from Cuba with his family as a child, seem like locks to make the team. Chris Brooks, 25, and 19-year-old Sam Mikulak are also in the running after strong results so far this year. Jake Dalton, 20, and Steve Legendre, 23, both products of the University of Oklahoma -- also Horton's alma mater -- should make a push for positions in London as well.
Having a team filled with so much inexperience at the highest international level might seem like a bit of a gamble for a country trying to medal for the first time in three consecutive Olympics Games. Horton, confident in his own abilities to lend veteran leadership to a group of Olympic rookies, thinks of it differently.
"On one side of it, when you have a really, really young team, you go into a competition just pumped up and fired up, and you're out there trying to show the world that who cares that you're young and inexperienced, that you can do this," he said. "But at the same time, sometimes the pressure and nerves can get to you, depending on the mentality of the guys. When you have a group of veterans who go out there, you've done it before, you understand it, you just knock it out of the ballpark, you get the job done. I think with a mix -- you have me and a group of [rookies] -- it's like a perfect mix, you can kind of have those two sides of the thinking."
Internal doubts aside, the U.S. will still have to overcome the rest of the world's best if it is to achieve its primary objective: a team all-around gold. While Horton believes you can never count out Germany and Russia, he said the team competition is once again shaping up to be "a dogfight" between the U.S., defending Olympic champion China and Japan, the 2004 titleholder from Athens, which is led by current world champion Kohei Uchimura, who Horton called probably the greatest ever.
The top prize remains the only thing on the American team's minds as they prepare to finalize the Olympic team this weekend.
"I get goose bumps thinking about what it would be like to stand on top of that medal podium and look to my left and look to my right, and just see my teammates," said Horton. "Just the idea of being in the Olympic Games and hearing my national anthem and seeing the flag raised, it's almost like something that makes me kind of emotional and I haven't even done it yet. I mean, I can imagine it, but I'm going to assume that when it actually happens, it's going to be even greater than I ever dreamed."
Golden dreams, surely even sweeter than honey.