By Blythe Lawrence | March 28, 2020, 12:01 a.m. (ET)

Stephen Nedoroscik competes at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 10, 2019 in Kansas City, Mo.

 

The first thing you notice when Stephen Nedoroscik steps up to the pommel horse are the goggles. Nedoroscik doesn’t need them to see better, nor does the Penn State senior wear them for protection on what can be men’s gymnastics’s most tenuous, unpredictable event. So what’s the deal?

Nedoroscik laughs. During his freshman year, he explains, teammate Ben Cooperman gifted him the goggles, known as “rec specs,” in a Secret Santa exchange. Nedoroscik thought they were funny, but Cooperman took things a step further by pushing his teammate to wear them while competing.

“‘Dude, I spent so much money on them,’” Nedoroscik laughingly recalls Cooperman telling him.

“I was like, this is just a silly gag gift, whatever,” he said. “That was when I was first starting NCAA. But then I started to form a goofiness when it came to competing and I was like, you know what? It’d be fun to put them on. Let’s put ‘em on.”

It was all goggles and giggles until Nedoroscik actually mounted the pommel horse with the rec specs on his head in a meet. That first time, the electrical engineering major hit his intricate routine. It happened the second time too, and the third.

“Before I knew it, it kind of became an image of mine,” he said.

The goggles, which make Nedoroscik look a bit like gymnastics’s answer to Clark Kent, and are so distracting that they almost shade his exceptional talent for pommel horse, historically a bugaboo for the U.S. men. But with his victory at last month’s world cup in Melbourne, Australia, Nedoroscik, rec specs and all, stepped into the light, announcing himself as an Olympic hopeful by finishing over some of the world’s top pommel horse specialists, including 2013 world champion Kohei Kameyama of Japan. 

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A true pommel horse gymnast, the 21-year-old Worcester, Massachusetts, native all but stopped training the other five events after joining the Nittany Lions, meaning he’s not viable to be selected for the four-man Olympic team competition, which requires gymnasts who can perform well on all six events. However, Nedoroscik was likely to contend for one of potentially two “specialist” spots that the U.S. men were trying to gain through the FIG all-around and individual apparatus world cup series, and possibly at the Pan American Championships.

That pathway is unclear at the moment, though, with the cancellation of competitions and the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. How gymnasts will be able to qualify for the Olympic berths still up for grabs remains up in the air. 

No matter how things shake out, competition for those places is likely to be intense, but Nedoroscik is confident in his abilities on what has long been his standout apparatus. 

Nedoroscik was 7 or 8 years old and had already been taking gymnastics for a few years when he made an unusual discovery: he could move his body in circles on the pommel horse turning both clockwise and counterclockwise, a sort of gymnastics ambidexterity that’s not common among men.

Still, he was never a huge all-around talent and opted to compete at the Junior Olympic level, a step below elite, before packing himself as a pommel horse specialist with skills that attracted the attention of some of the country’s best NCAA programs. Only once he was at Penn State did the difficulty of his exercise, and the cleanliness with which he performed it, mark him out as one of the potential best in the world. 

Nedoroscik is capable of a maximum score of 16.8, a tenth of a point higher than the 16.7 difficulty routine he competed in Melbourne — the extra tenth hinging on whether he’s able to put an extra pirouette into his dismount. He believes 16.8 is the second highest optimal score in the world on the event, a tenth or two down from Olympic champion Max Whitlock of Great Britain. 

He’s handled the transition from the NCAA to the world stage with his typical approach, taking the pressure off by singing with his coach before stepping up to the competition podium. And when he does compete, rec specs firmly on his head, he approaches things with the same mentality. He’s still Stephen Nedoroscik, still the guy with the goggles, just on a different plane.

“The way I look at it, stepping up into the NCAA was a pretty big jump and an extreme change in the atmosphere of the competitions,” he said. “Having the weight of me representing my university, my state, that was a lot of stress, but I look similarly at stepping from NCAA to international competitions. Now I carry the weight of representing the USA, but just like I did in college, I was able to adjust over time. It took a couple meets, but I feel far more comfortable being able to go out there on any international stage to represent the USA.”

Nor has the prospect of his Olympic potential daunted him.

“As a kid I always got comments from people: ‘Oh you’re going to be going to the Olympics?’” he said. “And I was like, you know what? Maybe I will. I’m going to try my hardest for sure. And that’s kind of the same way I look at it now: I’m going to try my hardest for sure.”

Blythe Lawrence has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.