A clean day leaves Horton in command in search of second straight national title

By Eddie Pells, AP
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Horton has lead after 1st day of US championships

HARTFORD, Conn. — Nothing is a sure thing in the world of gymnastics, especially not until everyone has made their way past the high bar — the most daring and mistake-prone event on the floor.

Except in this case, Jonathan Horton was.

Even with a fall on his evening-ending twirl above the bar, Horton was the class of U.S. championships Wednesday night. He moved a step closer to his second straight national title, scoring 90.35 points to leave him 1 point ahead of Danell Leyva with the finals scheduled for Friday.

“I’ve been hitting that routine about 75 or 80 percent of the time in the gym,” Horton said. “Hopefully, I can come back Friday and do it.”

Horton gets Thursday off when the women take center stage, with Rebecca Bross the favorite and defending champion Bridget Sloan expected to do only one event because of injuries.

Nationals will help determine this fall’s world championship teams, making this the first big step on the road to the London Olympics, which are less than two years away.

Brandon Wynn was in third place after the first day of the men’s competition with 88.7 points.

Horton came into nationals as a prohibitive favorite — the best male American gymnast this side of Paul Hamm, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist who is planning a comeback next year.

Horton built a 0.6-point lead over Leyva after five events, and Leyva’s closing routine on the pommel horse — largely considered the toughest event — meant Horton only needed to score 13.2 on high bar. He can pretty much do that in his sleep, and even with the fall, he scored a 14.2.

That left him short of the 92 points he hoped to finish the night with, but he still finished with the lead. And he still deemed the evening a success, considering he got back up on the bar to successfully redo the trick he had just messed up.

“It’s always a little scary to have to get up there and repeat something you just fell on,” Horton said.

Like many top gymnasts, Horton has ramped up his high bar in hopes of pumping up his score and adding more life into an event that had focused more in recent years on intricate hand positions than high-wire release and flipping acts. Horton now packs three releases into his routine — as does Leyva, who is shaping up as his toughest competition.

“It’s turning into a pretty extreme event,” Horton said. “I want to push the limits of excitement.”

He does that.

So does Leyva, who made it through his high bar unscathed. With his daring and the theatrics of his hyperkinetic dad and coach, Yin Alvarez — who practically goes through the routine with him — it figures Leyva and Co. could be the most entertaining American gymnastics act to watch for the next two years.

Leyva said he likes being in second with one day to go — an underdog, but one with a chance. Not that he was pulling for Horton to fall. They have a friendly rivalry that figures to keep getting better as the Olympics near.

“I was upset he fell,” Leyva said. “I want both of us to do our best in a competition and for me to come out better. I actually told him, ‘You better not fall on Friday.’”

Who are the other Olympic hopefuls?

Well, there’s Hamm, who will probably compete in his first comeback meet early next year. There’s also Wynn, an up-and-comer being coached by Miles Avery, who coached Hamm and his brother, Morgan, when they were at their peak.

Bryan Del Castillo was in fourth after one day and Jake Dalton was in fifth. Steven Legendre had the best vault of the night. He scored 17.05 and was the only gymnast to crack 17 on any event.

John Orozco, the three-time junior champion who was competing with the seniors this year, landed awkwardly on his vault and was taken to the hospital with a lower leg injury.

Then, there are 2008 Olympians such as Kevin Tan, who is trying to bring pommel horse back into his list of events — an attempt to become more versatile, which is necessary with teams being pared from six men to five for the upcoming Olympics.

Tan finished a respectable ninth on horse and fourth on rings, which has long been his specialty.

In the juniors competition, held earlier in the day, California’s Sam Mikulak won going away — scoring 86.500 points to beat Jacoby Rubin by more than 4. Mikulak’s finish makes him eligible for the senior finals on Friday.

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