Jonathan Horton’s victory at last year’s U.S. National Championships was one of the most dominant performances in the competition’s history.  Still riding high from his fairy-tale experience in Beijing – which included a bronze with the team and a silver on high bar – Horton soared and sizzled his way through the competition, besting his nearest competitor by a whopping 3.4 margin.  Aside from some slightly watered-down difficulty here and there and a couple of fatigue-related falls on pommel horse, Horton essentially looked like the same competitor that brilliantly led the U.S. team to its remarkable finish on the Olympic podium…the confident, clean, high-flying gymnast who seemed lighter than air and larger than life.  What was perhaps most impressive was the fact that Horton wasn’t even at full-time training status during much of his preparation for those nationals, and expectations from his fans were murky at best.  With his stellar showing and the first national all-around title of his career, Jonathan Horton officially stamped himself “legit.”

And then there was worlds.  It’s hard to guess what exactly happened to our seemingly invincible hero, but watching Jonathan Horton at worlds last year was like watching Superman carry Kryptonite…he suddenly lacked the spark and intensity that had come to define his gymnastics.  And for the first time since Beijing, his status as the best American gymnast was questionable, as Tim McNeill beat him in the all-around.  Perhaps it was the lack of team atmosphere that Jon has always seemed to thrive in…first as a college gymnast at the University of Oklahoma and then as a U.S. team leader at the 2007 worlds and 2008 Olympics.  The 2009 worlds was solely an individual competition, and perhaps it just didn’t ignite Horton’s fire like the major team competitions that always seemed to bring out his best gymnastics.

At the 2010 Winter Cup, Jon lost in the all-around again…this time to one of his best friends and lifelong training partners…fellow Houston native and Oklahoma Sooner Chris Brooks.  Although it may have been a slight jab at Horton’s pride, their one-two finish and subsequent invitations to the American Cup set up one of the best rivalries ever in U.S. men’s gymnastics.  Not only were Horton and Brooks from the same hometown, same home gym club, and same college team…their gymnastics is strikingly similar.  Both are powerful on floor and vault yet also great swingers on p-bars and high bar.  Both are known as “tricksters” who seem to care as much about exciting the audience as they do about hitting their routines.  And both share the same nemesis…pommel horse.

The American Cup was a wonderful preview of what will likely be the central story of the men’s Visa Championships this week…a thrilling head-to-head battle between America’s top two all-around gymnasts.  At the American Cup, each of them fell on one event –Horton on p-bars and Brooks on pommel horse – and ended up almost dead even in the all-around in 2nd and 3rd.  With very similar total D-scores, similar styles, and close results this year, you can bet that all eyes will be on these two as they take to the floor for this highly anticipated matchup.  We’ve had some great U.S. gymnasts in recent years who practically stood alone atop the national field for years at a time…John Roethlisberger, Blaine Wilson, and Paul Hamm come to mind.  What American men’s gymnastics has really lacked is one of those highly publicized, heated rivalries that seizes center stage and drives two national stars to fight tooth and nail for every single tenth in an intensely battled national championship.  I think we just may have one in store for us this week.