Horton wins another U.S. gymnastics title
HARTFORD, Conn. – Jonathan Horton wasn’t feeling it when he walked into the gym. When he botched a simple handstand on the parallel bars to open the night, he knew it wasn’t just his imagination.
From that mistake – one he termed a “disaster” – Horton found his footing and wound up where he expected Friday night: on top of the podium, a national champion for the second straight year.
After his slow start, Horton finished strong on rings and vault to finish with 181.65 points and hold off a surprisingly strong challenge from Danell Leyva to win the U.S. gymnastics championships by 2.3 points.
“I was thinking, ‘If this doesn’t get better soon, it’s going to be rough,”‘ Horton said. “But I survived. Sometimes survival is the best thing. But I’ve got to figure out how to not let this happen. There are meets where this is unacceptable.”
Horton came into the night with a one-point lead, but quickly fell behind after a wobble during a remarkably easy skill – basically, a handstand – on the parallel bars. “I didn’t fall, but in my mind, it was a little bit of a disaster,” he said.
Leyva, meanwhile, opened by landing his vault cleanly.
And so, the competition was on.
Horton started cleaning things up by the time he reached his third event, the floor exercise, and took the lead after scoring a 16.2 on a ramrod-straight rings routine. He closed the night with a near-perfect vault landing and, even before his score (a 16.05) came up, he pointed both fingers toward the sky and saluted the crowd.
He knew he had his title and the $10,000 prize that goes with it.
The evening ended up as the semi-runaway many people expected, but this was one where the scoreboard didn’t tell the whole story.
“I’m extremely happy for him,” Leyva said. “We’re both team players. Coming into the meet, he told me to put some pressure on him and afterward, he told me I definitely did that.”
Indeed, he did.
The second-place finish continued a steady climb for Leyva, the 18-year-old from Miami whose dad and coach, Yin Alvarez, is every bit as entertaining as his son – twisting, turning, gyrating with every move Leyva does up on the equipment.
Coach and son should be a fixture around this team for a while. On Saturday, Leyva will likely be named to the American team of five heading to world championships in October.
Horton will lead that team, and he figures to find better competition among the Chinese and Japanese than he does at home. For this year, at least. Paul Hamm, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist, is preparing a comeback and if he returns in form, the U.S. might have as good a combination at the top as it has since 1984 with Peter Vidmar, Bart Conner and Mitch Gaylord.
That’s one reason Horton has been pointing at Olympic gold – not so much for himself but for his team. It’s a goal the U.S. men have only dreamed about but never really vocalized over the past few decades.
“There’d be no point in doing gymnastics if you didn’t have a goal of winning it,” Horton said. “We’ve got Paul Hamm coming back, Danell looking the way he is … me feeling good about my gymnastics. I think for the team, an Olympic gold is within our sites. We can see it, visualize it. Now it’s time to take action.”
These nationals, coming less than two years away from London, showed where a few of the pieces of such a team might come from.
There was third-place finisher Brandon Wynn, the gold medalist on rings, who could combine with specialist Kevin Tan as a formidable pair on one of the sport’s highest-scoring events.
There is Steven Legendre, who put up a pair of 17s on vault to win that event going away.
There is three-time junior champion John Orozco, who tore his Achilles’ in Wednesday night’s preliminaries, but is expected back in time to contend for a spot on the worlds team next year.
And at the top, there is Horton, an Olympic silver medalist on high bar who comes off as unassuming but nonetheless holds himself responsible for his team’s success, and the success of the sport overall.
To help the team, he knows he must stay on the pommel horse, long his weak point – but something of a success this week, as he stayed on both times.
To help the sport, he wants to amp up the show on his best event, the high bar – the event with the most potential for excitement, but one that has been watered down of late, with intricate hand positioning replacing circus-like release moves.
Horton wants to change that. He has four releases in his newest high bar routine and he grabbed the bar after all of them this time, erasing the mistake from the first night when he fell, but still scored high enough to take the lead.
Leyva, meanwhile, also has four release moves and his routine is even more complex. But he had a big stall on one of his loops over the bar and only scored a 15.3. It was the first chink in his evening, and from there, his lead kept dwindling until it was gone.
“Both of us are score watchers. We knew what was going on,” Horton said. “We knew how it could end up. But he did a great job. Danny did something to be proud of. He’s only (18) and he’s out there, pushing to be a national champion.”
Pushing harder than Horton expected. Which, he said, made the victory that much more satisfying.
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