U.S. gymnast fueling the fire for Olympics return

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LONDON — It is not the culmination of a dream. It is the continuation of one. Jake Dalton’s journey carries on.

Youth can be both an advantage and flaw at the Olympics and Dalton has experienced both during his first taste of the Games. So too has his team.

Can you compete on the parallel bars with both hands around your neck?

It’s a question one seasoned Olympics writer asked during the men’s gymnastics team final on Monday, an event the United States qualified first in and then finished fifth and off the medals podium at North Greenwich Arena.

In one way, it’s not a surprise. The U.S. men have never won a team gold in a non-boycotted Olympics. In another, it’s the first time since they haven’t medaled since 2000 and how the Americans followed such a terrific performance in qualifying on Saturday couldn’t have been expected. They wobbled and fell and were anything but clean Monday.

But that’s the inconsistency you get when your team includes four first-time Olympians, one being a kid from Sparks, Nev., whose parents supported his love of the sport at a young age by purchasing a club gymnasium where he could train.

Dalton was a pretty good baseball player as a kid. Pitched a little. Had a nice swing. But it was nothing compared to how he looked on the pommel horse.

“I was a little nervous going out there (Monday) but I trusted in my training,” Dalton said. “It’s a dream come true. To come from a small town in Nevada to college at Oklahoma to here at the Olympics … Gymnastics has already done so much for me. It has allowed me to see the world. I’m blessed. What happened today will only fuel us harder the next four years.”

What happened is this: The U.S. made far too many early mistakes to have any chance of competing for a medal. They chased all day and when those you are pursuing include China and Japan, it feels like you’re driving a Chevy Diesel and they’re zooming around in a Lexus LFA.

For his part, Dalton was fine. He finished in the top 10 in each of the three apparatus he competed — the floor (team-best 15.466), rings (15.033) and vault (16.066) — and more than justified his at-large selection to the American team.

Maturity counts in men’s gymnastics. Bodies become stronger over time. It’s not like with the women, most of whom peak by age 17 and where college competition is considered a step down from this level. So it makes sense that while Dalton and his teammates were disappointed with not earning a medal, theirs is focus for many years ahead, specifically to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

“A lot of teams had a good day and we didn’t,” said Steve Penny, president of U.S. Gymnastics. “Little mistakes become big ones at the Olympics and that’s hard too overcome. But these guys are the core of our team for the next four years. “Someone like Jake is very consistent and has world-class ability. He has a great opportunity ahead of him. I think after this result, they’re going to want to go after it even more in four years.”

What a result. I hadn’t heard those who judged the Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley fight also were hired to score the gymnastics final, but once a protest by Japan was upheld after the final placements were shown, you had to wonder.

Talk about an emotional 10 minutes, watching Ukrainian athletes stand with their arms around each other and staring at the scoreboard after they had been shown to be the bronze medalists. But the reversal came and elevated Japan from fourth to silver behind China and Great Britain from silver to bronze and sent the Ukraine from bronze to nothing. It’s a brutal ending for those Ukrainian kids.

For Dalton, he isn’t finished. He will compete for the men’s individual title in floor on Sunday. His was the fourth best score in floor on Monday, meaning the 20-year old kid by way of Sparks and Oklahoma and years of hard work after giving up baseball to chase this dream can still medal in his first Olympics.

“I will shoot for the stars and hope for the best,” Dalton said. “I have to remain confident and yet humble. We have the talent and depth to one day stand as a team as gold medalists. “This was not the end of the world today.”

It was the continuation of a dream.

Just not how they envisioned continuing it.

ED GRANEY is a sports columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He also is writing an Olympics blog at www.lvrj.com/blogs/graney Follow him on Twitter @edgraney He can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com.