By Chrös McDougall | Oct. 02, 2017, 11:19 a.m. (ET)
Alex Naddour performs on still rings during podium training at the 47th Artistic Gymnastics World Championships on Sept. 29, 2017 in Montreal.

 

U.S. gymnastics officials tried to test Alex Naddour at last month’s national championships.

Naddour, now a pommel horse and still rings specialist, was entered in just those two events. And when the start list came out for the final night of competition, he was slated for the first and last rotations.

“They made me compete on rings and wait two hours to go on horse,” he said. “That normally wouldn’t happen. You’d have a back gym you could warm up on.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he quickly added.

Naddour, the reigning Olympic bronze medalist, stuck his dismount from the pommel horse to end the meet with a score of 15.25.

Of the 342 scores posted over the two-day competition, only one was better.

It was Naddour’s pommel horse from Day 1.

“I can do that set cold,” he said. “That was their mistake.”

As the other 36 gymnasts competed for national titles over the two-day competition in Anaheim, California, Naddour’s focus was on something bigger. Only a catastrophe was going to keep the 26-year-old Olympian off the six-person world championships team, and now Naddour will be the top medal contender for the relatively green U.S. team in Montreal.

“He can compete against the world,” Brett McClure, the U.S. men’s high performance director, said. “And at the same time, he’s very hungry to try to get a gold.”

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That showed after his final routine in Anaheim. Naddour pointed at his eyes. Then he pointed at a nearby TV camera.

“Eyes to the world,” he explained after. “They know I’m coming for them. I wanted to let them know that it’s not going to be easy this year.”

Naddour, a native of Gilbert, Arizona, is blazing a new path for the U.S. men’s gymnastics team as a true event specialist, as opposed to an all-around gymnast who just happens to excel on a few events. And after quietly putting together one of Team USA’s most impressive résumés over the past Olympic quad, he might now be better than ever.

It’s a situation that’s possible thanks to his breakthrough performance in Rio and an adjustment coming to the Olympic gymnastics format.

The pressure Naddour put on himself over the past four years might not have been obvious to the casual fan, but it was clearly visible on the inside of his right biceps.

He had the word “London,” with “2012” stylized into the letters, tattooed on a place where he knew he’d see it — a daily reminder that he went to those Olympics as an alternate, not an Olympian.

“Every day I was reminded that I didn’t get to compete at the Olympic Games,” he said.

Naddour made sure that didn’t happen again.

By the time the Rio Games arrived, Naddour was a veteran of four world championships and a five-time national champion on pommel horse, the U.S. men’s perpetually worst apparatus. Then he not only made the 2016 Olympic team but also won a bronze medal on horse — the first U.S. medal on the apparatus since 1984.

“A weight lifted off my shoulder,” he said.

One of the first things Naddour did upon returning home to Arizona was book an appointment with his favorite tattoo artist. The first session was just three days after returning home, and over two more sessions and 28 hours Naddour finally had the Olympic rings inked onto his body as part of an elaborate Olympic- and Rio-themed sleeve on his left arm.

“This one’s a little bigger,” he said, pointing to his new tattoo, with a smile.

All the while, as Naddour took part in USA Gymnastics’ post-Olympic tour and eschewed any formal training for three months, the high of winning a bronze medal stayed with him. Before long, the itch to compete again came back, and Naddour saw an opportunity to do just that.

In 2015, the International Gymnastics Federation announced that Olympic gymnastics teams would have four people in 2020, after being five per team in 2012 and ’16. As part of the change, however, each country could also send up to two individual competitors.

Naddour, who was never a top contender in the all-around to begin with, decided to drop everything but horse and rings. That makes him an unlikely candidate for the U.S. team in 2020 but, if his body holds up, a top contender as an individual.

When he returned to the gym, Naddour’s confidence had doubled while his training time was cut in half. He now trains just every other day. On his time off, he works as a real estate agent and as a coach at the gym owned by his father and personal coach, Mike Naddour. He also spends more time with his wife, former world champion Hollie Vise, and their 1-year-old daughter Lilah.

It’s a lifestyle that’s working for Naddour — and his gymnastics.

“I feel good,” he said. “I can push it harder than I ever pushed it on rings or pommel horse because I know I have all of tomorrow off.”

Said McClure: “I think what you’re seeing now is just how smart he is in his time management and efficiency in the gym.”

Nothing is for certain in gymnastics — not this week, not next year. As long as he’s able, Naddour plans to compete for one of those individual spots at the Tokyo Games in 2020.

If that’s not in the plans, though, he could do something nearly as sweet this week.

“I’d love at some point in my life to say I was the best in the world,” Naddour said. “So that’s my new motivation is to push for that gold medal. And I think I can do it, man. I feel good about it.”

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.