PITTSBURGH -- After 57 seconds packed with four release moves, a one-armed giant and more grip changes than a bike shop, Jonathan Horton dismounted from the high bar. Then he stuck out his tongue and exhaled.
“I was exhausted,” he said. “I was like, ‘How am I going to do four more routines after this?’”
Following reconstructive surgeries on each shoulder, the two-time Olympian marked his return to competitive gymnastics Friday at the P&G Gymnastics Championships with some flashes of greatness, some of the kinetic energy and cunning that made him a star for the past decade, but also some of the rust of a gymnast who hasn’t competed since the London 2012 Olympic Games.
After the first of two days of competition at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Horton sat in 12th place with 86.300 points. His 2012 Olympic teammate, John Orozco, led with 90.750 points. Read more about Orozco here.
“I am sitting in 12th place right now, but I’m kind of proud of myself,” said Horton, who earned a silver medal on high bar and a team bronze medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. “I’m proud that I had major reconstructive surgery on two shoulders and I’m still able to do this stuff. I feel like I’m only going to get better, and I feel like I’m better than I’ve ever been.”
At 28, Horton is married with a 13-month-old son, David, and is the undisputed “old man” on the U.S. team. The top four finishers on Friday — coincidentally Horton’s four 2012 Olympic teammates — max out at 23.
Horton joked that reporters have been asking all week why he’s still out here, surgery scars all over his body, torturing himself on pommel horses and still rings with a bunch of kids. But he laughed at the concept of retiring, since the idea hasn’t really crossed his mind. In fact, Horton suggested that he might still want to compete until the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
Even in this fiercely competitive individual sport, his U.S. counterparts would be happy to have him.
Danell Leyva, an Olympic all-around bronze medalist and one of Horton’s teammates on the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team and the third-place finisher Day 1, spoke of the team’s patriarch Friday without prompt.
“It’s always good to have somebody like Horton,” Leyva said, struggling to pick the right words. “He has so much experience and so much, like, I don’t know … his wisdom just radiates off him.”
Sticking around is another story, though.
Horton has an excuse this weekend — four surgeries in three-and-a-half years, and no competitive gymnastics since London. Even he admitted that he’s not exactly a lock for the six-person team that will compete in the world championships in October in China.
Since Horton won his back-to-back U.S. all-around titles in 2009 and 2010, his Olympic teammates Leyva (2011), Orozco (2012) and Sam Mikulak (2013) have claimed the titles. With up-and-comers like Donnell Whittenburg, Alex Naddour and Brandon Wynn improving as well, staying among the top six — or top five for the Olympic Games — is only getting harder.
That’s not how Horton thinks, though.
Even as more Americans excel in the all-around, he refuses to consider becoming an event specialist.
“I’m an all-arounder until the end,” he said. “I love doing all six events.”
And even as his spot on this year’s world championship team looks like a long shot, he enthusiastically suggested a far less glamorous alternative.
“I obviously would love to be on the world team; I would even love to be the alternate for the world team,” he said. “I’d consider this year, the last couple years, a success if I was the alternate, to be able to go there and cheer on the guys and say, ‘Hey, I’m here for you guys if anything happens.’”
After 11 years on the senior level, a career that includes nine NCAA titles at Oklahoma and the 2010 world all-around bronze medal, Horton is also resigned to the fact that he might have peaked. And if that’s the case, he said he could retire now and be completely happy with his career.
“What’s given me that weight off my shoulders is my son,” he said. “I look up at him up in the stands and I think, ‘Man, you know what, if today doesn’t go well, I have him, I have my wife, and there’s so much more than just gymnastics.’”
Of course, on Friday night, Horton was still here, in a chalk-filled arena, scars marking his body, torturing himself alongside a bunch of kids. So while there might be more to life than gymnastics, he’s not yet ready to consider giving it up.
“The reason I’m here,” he said, “is I’ve never been able to say that on one day in my life, ‘I was the best in the world.’ Whether it’s with my team, which is what I would absolutely love, or myself individually, I want to be able to walk away from the sport and be able to say at one time, at one moment in my career, I was the best.”
Chrös McDougall has been a reporter and editor for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.