Friday, July 27, 2012

Sooner Gymnasts Set for Olympics

Jake Dalton competes on the vault during day 1 of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team Trials at HP Pavilion on June 28, 2012 in San Jose, California. (June 27, 2012 - Source: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America)
NORMAN, Okla. -- When the 2012 Olympic Games begin this weekend in London, eight men's gymnasts will represent the United States of America, and five of those individuals will be showcasing skills they developed while competing at the University of Oklahoma.

The five-member team in London includes OU letterwinner Jonathan Horton (2005-08) and senior-to-be Jake Dalton. In addition, all three alternates reign from the Sooner program coached by Mark Williams, who has guided OU to five national titles since 1999. Those individuals include Chris Brooks (2006-09), Steven Legendre (2008-2011) and Alex Naddour (2010-2011).

"I think it's pretty incredible that we are talking about a select group of eight athletes and five of them are from the University of Oklahoma program," said Williams, who will join the team as a personal coach in his fourth Olympic Games. "It's an amazing accomplishment to have such a representation. I am proud of these guys and the work they've put forth and to display it on the biggest stage in the world. It should be very exciting."

While Williams and the Sooners have not finished worse than fourth at the NCAA Championships since his first season in Norman, the program's accomplishments reach far beyond NCAA trophies. Bart Conner was the first OU gymnast to compete in the Olympics in 1976, '80 and '84, and seven more Olympians have trained under Williams.

In 2004, assistant coach Guard Young competed as Team USA won a silver medal in the Olympic games held in Athens.

In 2008, Horton and the United States won bronze at the summer games in Beijing, China. Horton also found individual success, taking silver in the high bar portion of the event.

Now in 2012, five more Sooners will represent the crimson and cream on the sport's biggest stage.

"I've been thinking about it and it's unprecedented," Williams said. "UCLA had three on the team in 1984 along with Bart, but since then I don't remember more than two gymnasts coming from the same program."

Since 2005, these five gymnasts have helped the OU program build upon its rich tradition by adding team national titles in 2005, '06 and '08, and 18 individual NCAA crowns, led by Horton and Legendre with six apiece. The accolades don't stop there as they have accounted for 55 All-America honors, six team conference championships, 24 individual conference titles, and two Nissen-Emery Awards (given annually to the nation's top senior gymnast).

"I think it's very special for our program,"Dalton said. "It says a lot about what we have accomplished here, thanks to amazing coaches, facilities and all the support.

"I am very honored to go over there (London) and represent Team USA and OU. It's pretty amazing for all of us to be going. It's going to be fun."

While the group's accomplishments in Norman are nothing short of impressive, the Sooners turn their focus to bringing home a gold medal from London. The dream of representing your country in the Olympics is something all young gymnasts grow up striving for.

"You get there and it's a whole different animal," Williams said. "It's an opportunity to showcase your life work in front of the world."

The five Sooners have found success together as they represented the U.S. at the last World Championships where the squad earned a bronze medal. And just like the World Championships, China and Japan will provide the U.S. with its biggest competition.

"The chemistry of the team will be very tight," said Dalton, whose Twitter (@jake_dalton) followers increased by 8,000 after being named to the Olympic team. "We have a young team, but a strong and deep squad. It's no secret that Japan and China are our biggest competition."

"I think Worlds prepared us and we are going out to prove we can compete with the best and win a gold medal. We will look to Jon (Horton) and his experience as the only one that has been here before."

Horton made his debut in Beijing in 2008, shortly after completing his eligibility at OU, and brought home two medals. Coach Williams agrees that Horton's experience will benefit the group.

"Leadership and experience are invaluable skills for Jon and this team," said Williams. "Jon can tell these guys about being there and help them enjoy the full experience."

Horton was part of a six-man team in 2008. That format has changed in 2012 as only five gymnasts will actually compete. If the team format was similar to the last Olympic Games in Beijing, three gymnasts out of the six-member team would be Sooners.

Legendre, the 2011 Nissen-Emery Award winner and student coach with the Sooners in 2012, might have been next in line for that sixth spot. Despite being an alternate, Legendre, along with Brooks and Naddour are still honored to be representing their country. Should the opportunity arise, they will be ready to be called upon to don the red, white and blue.

"My frame of mind is exactly the same as what Jake's is," said Legendre. "He knows he is going to be out there competing, and I am just trying keep my mind in the same place. Anything can happen. All three of us (alternates) know we are in an important piece to this team and have to be ready to go."

/// SoonerSports PR
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