Sitting on a chair at a podium above the others, smiling and answering a host of easy questions, Jonathan Horton suddenly tensed at a single query.
His eyes flashed frustration. He wanted no part of any question that turned the focus toward the darkest moment of his career.
“We’re going to bring that up?” he snapped.
Yes, we are, Jonathan. We’re bringing up how the USA Men’s Gymnastics team finished a floundering 13th at the World Championships in 2006. We’re going to ask, even though you turned your steely eyes and angry demeanor toward us, because it was a seminal moment in not just your career but also the now upward trajectory of men’s gymnastics.
We’re asking because with London so close and the standards for the men so high — many believe they have a real shot at gold — it’s worth knowing how the lowest of lows changed everything, especially for you.
“OK,” he said. He still sounded angry. But he was willing.
He paused. Then he dived in.
“(The) 2006 worlds was a turning point in my career,” he said. “That’s when I realized it was going to take more effort than I ever thought to accomplish what I want in this sport and that I would have to really turn on the tunnel vision and focus on my goals and not let outside forces affect my gymnastics.
“Getting 13th, and knowing you’re a part of the worst men’s gymnastics team in the history of our country, that was rough on me and on the rest of the team. But I think that was the most important moment of my entire career.”
Men’s gymnastics has never had the success, renown or expectations enjoyed by the women. But the men’s showing in 2006 was as low a point as USA gymnastics has experienced. It burned; it still burns. The mere mention of the moment turns an affable Horton into an angry one.
“That drove him through ’07 and ’08,” said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. “There’s no doubt that that moment (was critical). You didn’t see Jon Horton for days after that. That was very much a turning point for him.”
Many things forge great athletes into even better leaders. Time. Success. Training. Experience. An understanding of what it takes to win.
And, yes, true humiliation.
That is one of the secret ingredients peppering this men’s gymnastics team heading into the London games. It might also serve as an antidote to the exceptional pressure these expectations will impose on America’s team.
In London, gold is a very real possibility. And so Horton, and how the shame of 2006 made him stronger, will be key in warding off the pressure that will come with such expectations.
This men’s team is young. Talented, yes. But also very young. If Horton makes the team — and by all accounts he will — he will be America’s only returning Olympian.
The others vying for a spot do not have Olympic experience: John Orozco. Jake Dalton. Chris Brooks. Danell Leyva. Steve Legendre. Brandon Wynn, and more.
All have potential. All have talent. All have a shot to make the team and help lift American gymnastics to historic heights — a wiping of 2006’s slate, a six-year run from the lowest lows to the highest highs.
It’s Horton’s leadership that many believe can serve as a binding agent for all America’s talent against all the pressure America will face. It’s 2006 and how it echoes through Horton, and what it’s taught him, that many believe can help 2012 be a year of celebration.
“It made a huge difference for the entire men’s program going into ’07 and ’08 because they knew the work and results and achievements of what the guys before had done to get on the podium in 2004,” Penny said. “And the last thing they wanted to see was that bar to get lowered again.
“That moment rallied not just Jon but the entire men’s team,” Penny said. “That moment alone was one of the reasons the Hamms wanted to be on that team.”
Now just Horton remains. But the goal is the same: Gold.
Gold for America. Gold for his team. Gold to erase, if that’s possible, 2006. And if it’s not, gold to give 2006 meaning beyond an all-time failure.
“I think that’s why I had success the next few years, and I think that’s why I’m still going,” Horton said. “The team medal, the team gold medal, that’s my only goal. If we go in there and win the team gold medal it’ll be, ‘Done. Mission accomplished.’
“We have the team to do that,” he said. “We can get that gold, and that’s what we’re shooting for.”