PITTSBURGH — They delivered the diagnosis to Jonathan Horton while he was on a table in December. A torn pec.
If Horton had ended his career then and there, he would go down as one of the greatest U.S. men’s gymnasts ever.
He led the program in 2008, when an Olympic team bronze meant surprising success, and contributed through 2012, when not making the Olympic team podium meant unexpected failure.
Horton competed in London with a right shoulder “torn to shreds,” a doctor told him right after the Games. Reconstructive surgery. Rehab. Return. Then the torn pec at a national team camp.
So Horton, on that table, heard the news. He gazed at a group around him, including his coach.
“I’ll be at Championships,” he said. Horton meant the P&G Championships, to be held eight months later.
“I was like, uh … OK, he’s being a little aggressive,” said Tom Meadows, Horton’s coach. “We all know the reality of a torn pec.”
The reality was Horton was at P&G Championships, his first competition since the London Olympics. He finished eighth in the all-around and made the U.S. national team.
Horton was not selected for the six-man World Championships squad, but he did accept a spot on the team for the Pan American Championships in Toronto this week.
“What a testament,” Meadows said Sunday.
Truth is, Meadows doubted Horton even on the final day of competition at Consol Energy Center.
“I was concerned coming into [Sunday] if he was going to be able to make all six events, just to make it through, because he was tired,” he said.
Horton’s status was complicated in the hotel shower Sunday morning.
He inadvertently slammed his elbow into a soap tray.
“Like full force,” Horton said. “My elbow split open.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but it was a burst bursa sac. Horton walked out of the shower and turned to his wife, Haley, a former gymnast and medical student.
“Is this normal?” Horton asked.
Haley “freaked out” (Horton’s words) and helped compress the elbow with tape.
“It didn’t affect me at all [Sunday],” Horton said. “It stiffened up a little bit, but not a big deal.”
Horton performed better Sunday than he did the first day of competition Friday, despite his coach’s fear and his shower slip up. He was 12th in the all-around after Friday. He was fifth best Sunday to move up to eighth overall.
“It wasn’t perfect,” Horton said. “I would say, in terms of where I want to be in two years [in Rio de Janeiro as the oldest U.S. Olympic men’s gymnast since 1956], I’m about 50 percent. I’ve got a lot of work to do to catch up to these guys, but I’m up to the challenge.”
He expects to be able to hang with Sam Mikulak, who on Sunday became the first man since Horton to win back-to-back U.S. all-around titles. Mikulak is seven years younger than Horton, a 2012 Olympic teammate.
One of Horton’s 2008 Olympic teammates was in his ear Sunday — Raj Bhavsar. Bhavsar didn’t make his one and only Olympic team until he was nearly 28 years old, as an injury replacement, and after being an alternate in 2004.
He approached Horton before competition and offered some help.
“[Bhavsar] was like hey man, if you’re OK with it, I know what you’re going through,” Horton said. “You’re the older guy out here. You’ve gone through surgeries. You’re trying to push through and stay up to this level. He’s like, if you want man, I can help you out. I can give you some advice.
“I said, absolutely. Stay in my ear, because I’m dead. I’m exhausted. I needed it.”
“I kind of walked in here afraid to compete because of how tired I felt. It shows that the mental side of gymnastics is so important because mentally I stayed in my own little world and just relaxed instead of being so uptight [Sunday].”
Coincidentally, Horton also rotated Sunday with the man Bhavsar filled in for on the 2008 Olympic team, the 2004 Olympic all-around champion Paul Hamm.
Hamm was coaching another gymnast in Horton’s group. Hand and shoulder injuries eventually forced Hamm off the Beijing Olympic team, and he eventually retired for good in 2012.
Horton hopes he’s not yet in the twilight of his career. He insists he could compete in 2020.
“I’m extremely happy with the path that I’m on,” Horton said.