At age twenty-five, Jonathan Horton is an Olympic medalist, a world all-around medalist, and a two-time defending national all-around champion, but surprisingly may actually enter this year’s nationals as the underdog rather than the favorite. Nineteen-year-old Danell Leyva, a two-time world team member and world high bar finalist, forced Horton to be at his best throughout most of last year’s championship before finally settling for silver behind the more seasoned veteran. Although Horton has a recent history of performing brilliantly at this meet despite less than world-class preparation, many believe it may finally be Leyva’s turn to take the national all-around crown, as he has clearly been the more impressive of the two in competition this year. While these two are expected to once again be world teammates in Tokyo two months from now, first things first…the battle for the 2011 national all-around title is now officially on.
All-Around Dark Horses
Oklahoma standouts Jake Dalton and Steven Legendre are primarily known as floor and vault specialists, but both could potentially shake up the all-around standings as well if things go their way in St. Paul. Brandon Wynn, widely known for his beastly world class rings routine, surprised many with a third place all-around finish at last year’s nationals, only 0.6 behind silver medalist Danell Leyva. Will he be a contender for the podium again this year? Chris Brooks had a stellar first half of last year’s season and was expected to battle with teammate Jonathan Horton for the national all-around crown before falls on pommel horse and problems with his ankle ended up keeping him off the national podium in 4th place. Since we haven’t seen him in competition since the 2010 world championships, his status as an all-around contender remains largely a mystery. Glen Ishino, one of the cleanest and most consistent gymnasts in the field, finished 5th last year and could certainly challenge for a top three finish, particularly if others falter. And John Orozco, the 18-year-old sensation who tore his Achilles at last year’s nationals and made a stunning return at the recent Japan Cup, could be a huge all-around threat if he’s ready to compete all six events.
Pommel Horse Rodeo
It might be barely three feet off the ground, but the pommel horse has been by far the most challenging hurdle for the U.S. men’s team to conquer over the past six years. Alex Artemev provided some leadership on the event during the last quadrennial and helped anchor the U.S. team’s bronze medal performance at the Olympics in Beijing, but there’s no question this event has cost the U.S. team more than one world team medal over the past several years – most recently at last year’s worlds in Rotterdam. But some might say the U.S. men may be turning this trend around, as they recently shocked the international community by winning pommel horse at this summer’s Japan Cup, outscoring Japan’s very best squad as well as a B-team from world and Olympic champion China. Oklahoma’s Alex Naddour and teenage star John Orozco headlined that phenomenal U.S. effort with 15+ scores and will be top contenders for Tokyo if they can duplicate those performances this week in St. Paul. Defending national pommel horse champion Daniel Ribeiro has yet to make a world team and will attempt to swing his way all the way to Tokyo this year, and 2010 world team member Chris Cameron will be looking to redeem himself from his mistakes in the team finals in Rotterdam as well as some recent inconsistencies. Cal-Berkeley’s Glen Ishino, former Stanford gymnast Sho Nakamori, and Ohio State’s Ty Echard will all be hoping their beautiful body line and execution will glide them to the top of the standings on this key event. 2009 world pommel horse finalist Tim McNeill was initially slated to compete this week in St. Paul, but unfortunately it appears he has withdrawn from the competition, as his name is absent from the start list.
Men’s floor and vault have become more and more spectacular under today’s outrageously demanding code of points, and some of the biggest tumblers and vaulters in the business hail from the United States. Steven Legendre is a two-time world floor finalist and is capable of some of the wildest skills in the world today. If he can land all his crazy tricks on his feet, he remains one of the U.S.’s most lethal secret weapons on the world stage. His teammate and fellow Oklahoma Sooner Jake Dalton has outdone Legendre several times this year, posting huge scores on both of these power-events as well as in the all-around. Dalton’s big tumbling passes and signature triple twisting vault could sail him past his more experienced teammate and onto this year’s world championship team. Illinois’s Paul Ruggeri, a world team alternate last year, has returned from the ankle injury he suffered at February ‘s Winter Cup and will need to prove he is back to full strength if he hopes for a spot in Tokyo. There may be room for only one floor and vault specialist on the world team, so sit back and enjoy some high flying gymnastics as these guys duke it out on the competition floor – and more likely high above the competition floor.
No Silly Selection Camps
While the women’s side continues to cling to the unpopular “selection camps,” which take place almost entirely out of the public’s eye and drag on world and Olympic selection processes far longer than necessary, the men have recently readopted the more traditional method of using actual competitions to guide team selection. Although most of the spots on the team will still be hand-picked, the top two all-around finishers in St. Paul will automatically qualify for the world team, provided they finish in the top three on at least three individual events. The return to some sort of objectivity, and more importantly, to placing true value and significance on our national competitions, is certainly a refreshing trend. Let’s enjoy the suspense as we await the announcement of the men’s world team following the competition, and hope that one day the women will once again follow suit.