Getting to the top, and then staying there, takes more than hard work. My Focus, presented by milk life, tells the stories of one area that 24 athletes are honing in on in their quest to stand atop the podium at the next Olympic or Paralympic Games.
Gymnastics was many things for Donothan Bailey growing up: a hobby, an outlet, a way to have fun and a vehicle for taking him places he would never go otherwise.
Yet as he progressed from a junior to a college gymnast and even a national team member, he said, it never really dawned on him that competing in the Olympic Games was a possibility. Now, about to turn 27 years old, Bailey’s focus is on building the confidence in his body and his mind that he needs to give himself the best shot at making the Olympic team in 2020.
“I kind of saw this potential toward the tail end of the last quad, and in a way I was like, man, imagine if I’d realized this immediately?” he said. “Not that I have any regrets; I’m happy with the way my life has played out, but I thought now I have four more years to really push it the entire quad and to see what I’m capable of, to see if I have a shot at this.”
A native of Mission Viejo, California, Bailey was a member of the U.S. junior national team from 2007-09 and a three-time national junior champion on pommel horse from 2006-08, and when he started at Cal in 2010 he had a goal of making the senior national team and perhaps the 2012 Olympic team. Bailey missed out on that Olympic team, and when he moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, after graduating, he realized there was a difference between him and other gymnasts his age.
“We had been at pretty much the same level, but they all passed me up,” he said. “It didn’t really click with me that the thing that separated us most was that dedication they had. Being an Olympic champion, going to the Olympics, that was constantly running through their heads. They saw themselves as the best in the world and they were going to do everything to prove it.”
Bailey admits he didn’t always have that same drive, or confidence. Gymnastics was on the back burner while he was in college. While some athletes chose majors that would allow them to maximize their time in the gym, he majored in biology and put education first, gymnastics second. It showed in his results, he said, but looking back he also realizes that part of him never fully believed he was capable of success at the highest possible level.
Then in 2015, Bailey won the bronze medal in pommel horse at the Winter Cup, an important domestic meet for the U.S. men each year, and then the silver medal in pommel horse at the U.S. championships that summer. He won another silver at the 2016 Winter Cup and then won the event at the 2016 national championships. At the Olympic trials that year he was third on pommel horse and ninth in the all-around.
Afterward, he said, he did some reevaluating and realized a lack of confidence was still holding him back.
“That was the main thing that hit me, and confidence, in my mind, encompassed a lot of different things,” he said. “Being confident on the floor, obviously, confident in my routines, believing that I’m capable of doing each routine to the best of my ability. And along the way I noticed I wasn’t very confident in my body. Things were hurting, I was breaking down with age, and if I was stepping in the gym feeling like my body wasn’t going to hold up it’s not very conducive to success.”
In order to tackle confidence on all those different levels heading into this quad, Bailey said, he started by examining his strengths, where he could improve, what skills he needed to learn and what he needed to do in order to learn them.
Then he started to focus on increasing his time in the sports medicine clinic at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, making sure that he was treating all the little aches and pains that he knew would only get worse as time went on if not properly cared for.
He also started working three days a week with a strength and conditioning coach on activating smaller muscles and working on range of motion and other simple movements.
“It’s been working wonders,” he said. “My flexibility has gotten better. The confidence I have with tumbling and vaulting is significantly higher. I’m experiencing a lot less aches and pains, so I would say that just all of these things we’ve been doing every single week have been helping a ton.”
He’s also been working with a sports psychologist on things such as meditation and visualization and employing techniques and systems to help him calm down, get motivated and approach a routine in the minutes just prior to the start, and he believes that’s also made a big difference.
Now, Bailey spends time thinking about the Olympics, and thinking about the younger version of himself who had that dream the way so many young gymnasts do. His goal for 2018, he said, is not necessarily to have specific results but rather to be able to do the skills he wants to do and have the routines he wants to compete in Tokyo ready by the end of the year.
Playing the long game like that may not be easy, he knows, particularly if increasing his level of difficulty means some meets won’t go the way he wants. If it helps him to reach the bigger goal of making the 2020 Olympic team, a goal he now believes possible, then that will make him happy.
“As a kid it was my dream to make it to the Olympics,” he said. “When I first started, that’s what I thought about. I worked so hard to make that happen, then I lost sight of that along the way so it would be really cool to do everything in my power to make that happen almost as a tribute to my younger self and my mom. And knowing how much this means to my family, especially the younger kids in my family, I think making this team would really mean a lot in showing them how far you can get by pursuing your dreams and doing what you love.”