Alternate no more, Naddour counts blessings on road to Rio
Alex Naddour stops himself in mid-thought, his brain tapping the brakes so he can stress that he's aware his spot on the 2016 U.S. men's Olympic gymnastics team is not simply the result of the force of his considerable will.
''I'm the luckiest guy I know,'' Naddour said.
Let him count the ways.
There's his infant daughter, Lilah, whose arrival earlier this year gave the 25-year-old a perspective while sanding away the rough edges to his intense personality.
There's his wife, two-time world champion Hollie Vise, who knows a thing or two about the sacrifices it takes to compete at the highest level in an uncompromising sport.
There's his father, Mike, who came out of retirement to help his son become more than the one American whose grace makes pommel horse look like a good time, something to be enjoyed instead of endured.
Maybe that's why the tears came so freely after Naddour heard his name called as part of the five-man group that will head to Brazil next month with the hopes of getting the U.S. back on the podium after flaming out in the finals in London four years ago. Maybe that's why he pounded his right hand over his heart at the end of his pommel horse routine on the final night of Olympic Trials.
''It took a lot of people to get to this point,'' he said.
An alternate in 2012, Naddour never lacked belief he would make it even as he saw other teammates bask in the kind of attention that seemed to elude him.
''There were banners outside national championships, and I'm not on them,'' he said. ''There were promos, I wasn't in them.''
There was the embarrassment of the 2013 world championships, when he was held out of the all-around competition despite finishing second behind Sam Mikulak at nationals.
Nearly three years later, the snub still stings. Yet it provided more fuel to an internal fire that has long led Naddour to go his own way. He left the powerhouse program at Oklahoma in fall 2011 after clashing with coach Mark Williams over workload. Naddour wanted to focus all his attention on getting to the 2012 Olympics, something he doesn't believe he could have done if he stayed with the Sooners. Concerned over the potential workload of competing in the all-around during a collegiate season, Naddour headed back home to Arizona to train with his father.
While he didn't make it to the floor in London - watching from the stands as the Americans slipped from the top of the leaderboard in qualifying to fifth in team finals - Naddour has no regrets, pointing out he's nearing a degree in business management at Arizona State. And because he didn't have to worry about retaining his amateur status following those games, Naddour was able to turn the paychecks he received for participating in the post-Olympic tour into a down payment on a house.
''I know (leaving) was the right choice,'' said Naddour, who dabbles in real estate to help pay the bills.
So was the decision to press forward with a family. He found a kindred spirit in Vise, who won a pair of gold medals at the 2003 world championships. They were married last May and she pointed to a narrow window in which they could get a jumpstart on parenthood before training for Rio overtook Naddour's life.
Lilah's arrival in late winter would have signaled an abrupt lifestyle change in most marriages. Not for the Naddours, who upgraded to a one-story ranch to make it easier for Lilah (and they hope, one day, the rest of their kids) to get around. Hollie gave give Alex the master bedroom so he could get some regular sleep while mother and daughter moved to the other side of the house.
''Maybe some other wives would get frustrated but she gets my training, she knows how bad I want it,'' Naddour said. ''She takes care of Lilah in the morning so I can sleep and nighttime when I can sleep. Without her being in the sport and knowing what it takes, that would be difficult.''
A typical day for Naddour includes training at the gym from 11:30-4. Hollie then arrives at the gym - where she runs the women's program - and leaves Lilah with one of the grandparents before Naddour takes over from 4-8. Then it's dinner and a little quiet time. When Hollie and Lilah head off to bed, Naddour heads outside for cardio.
''I've got some payback to do as soon as all this is over,'' Naddour said. ''I'm on daddy duty probably indefinitely once my career is over.''
There's no telling when that day will come. Naddour built his reputation as one of the few Americans who excel on pommel horse - a 45-second battle between gravity and the lactic acid in your arms and legs that few Americans win. It's a pretty quick way to get the attention of U.S. national team officials, yet after just missing out on London, Naddour realized he needed to become a more complete gymnast.
''When we didn't get to compete (in London) it was like: `Why? What happened?''' he said. ''Then we looked at the scores and while we contribute on pommels, it wasn't enough. With a five-man team, you need other events. Everyone knows it, I didn't at the time.''
Now he does. While Naddour won pommel horse easily during trials, he was also third on rings, sixth on floor exercise and eighth on vault, performances that made him a lock for Rio, while other teammates were relegated to alternate.
It's a role he respects, but one he's happy not to fulfill this time around.