Horton looks to continue outstanding gymnastics career in Beijing

If Jonathan Horton were to win a gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, it would not come as a surprise to anyone who knows him. He has been preparing for this chance nearly all of his life.

Long before he became excited about the sport after watching the United States' women's gymnastics team claim the gold medal at the Atlanta Games in 1996, Horton demonstrated his ability to rise to the occasion under some unusual circumstances.

When he was just 3 years old, his mother, Margo, found him hanging from the garage door after he rode it to the top and she unknowingly become her son's first spotter. Less than a year later, he scaled a pole at a Houston-area Target store all the way from the floor to the ceiling. Another favorite activity was doing back flips on his parents' bed.

Those events might have been the first indication that high bars and rings would play a significant role in young Jonathan's future. In the years to come, gymnastics would provide the perfect outlet for his athleticism, showmanship and daredevil personality.

Horton enrolled at the Cypress Academy of Gymnastics in Houston at age 11 and trained under Tom Meadows, who was a member of the University of Oklahoma's third national championship team in 1991. One of the assistant coaches for that team was current Sooners coach Mark Williams.

It didn't take long for Horton to establish himself as one of the top up-and-coming gymnasts at the junior level. His first national meet was the 1999 Men's Junior Olympic Championships, and three years later at the 2002 Junior Olympics, he finished first in the all-around and second in the floor exercise, still rings, vault and parallel bars.

Those kinds of results made Horton a hot commodity on the collegiate recruiting trail, and he was pursued by recent national champions like Penn State and Ohio State, along with Iowa and Michigan. But all it took was one trip to Norman in 2004 for Horton to quickly realize that Oklahoma was where he needed to go.

"When I came here on my recruiting trip, I fell in love with Oklahoma," Horton said. "It was an incredible atmosphere and, being from Texas, it was close to home. After my recruiting trip was over, it was a really easy decision for me.

"Being with Tom for so long, I had an idea what coach Williams was going to be like. He was exactly what I was used to. I was very comfortable with his style of coaching and the way he said I would play a role on the team."

It didn't hurt that the Sooners had won two of the last three national championships.

Many gymnasts played a role in building the Oklahoma dynasty, but none had more of an impact on the program than Bart Conner.

Conner won three individual national titles at the NCAA championships, earned 14 All-America certificates and led Oklahoma to a pair of team championships in 1977 and '78. He also was the first of the Sooners' six Nissen-Emery Award winners (given annually to the top senior men's gymnast).

Conner's stature was magnified in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, where he won a pair of gold medals -- one as part of the U.S. men's team and a second when he earned a perfect 10 in the parallel bars.

"It's great to have a role model like Bart," Horton said. "I've always aspired to reach his accomplishments and I feel like I'm on my way to doing that.

"But he's got those Olympic gold medals that he can wear proudly around his neck. I haven't done that yet, so I look up to Bart and remind myself that I still have that to accomplish."

During his four-year career at Oklahoma, Horton won six NCAA individual titles, earned 18 All-America certificates and was part of three national championship teams. This year, he was the recipient of the Nissen-Emery Award.

"He is the kind of guy who I would like to succeed me," Conner said of Horton. "He's all about the team. He puts the team first, as he did with the Oklahoma Sooners, and I'm sure he does with the U.S. team. He's very supportive of his teammates and everything that is going on around him."

The other quality that makes Horton the perfect teammate is his work ethic.

"He's always the last guy to finish at practice," Williams said. "He comes to the gym and knows what he has to do. As far as our team goes, he's the hardest worker. Once you put in the time and effort like that, good things will happen."

Based on Horton's most recent results, he could be a serious contender for multiple medals in Beijing. At the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Philadelphia, he finished first in the all-around and second in the floor exercise and still rings. At the 2007 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, he finished fourth in the all-around.

International experience is an important aspect of preparation for the Olympic Games. But even though the routines and competition will be the same, Conner believes how an athlete deals with the sheer magnitude of the games can be the difference between standing on the podium or going home empty handed.

"A lot of guys say they're going to treat it like any other competition," Conner said. "I think that's a mistake because you have to acknowledge that the Olympics are enormous and then try to treat it like it's just another day at the gym. If you are in denial about how big the Olympics are, it can overwhelm you.

"I think Jonathan is prepared because he has been through major competitions. He's had rough days, like he did at the World Championships, and then he came back in the finals and took fourth in the all-around. He's comfortable on that world stage now."

The all-around could be Horton's best chance for an individual medal, but that's not the one he covets most. He wants to join Conner as the only Sooner to own a gold medal as part of a team.

If the U.S. men are going to win a medal, they will have to do it without Paul Hamm, who withdrew from the team on July 28 because of a hand injury. Competing without the reigning gold medalist in the all-around means every member of the team will have to nail every routine on every apparatus.

"Being in college, I've learned the most important thing to me is the team," Horton said. "After that, anything as an individual would be a bonus. If I were to stand on the podium with my teammates, that would be so much more satisfying than to be on the podium by myself."

Needless to say, if Horton fulfills his dream of winning a gold medal in Beijing, the Oklahoma gymnastics program will have played an important role in helping him fulfill his Olympic dream.

"I couldn't ask for more," Horton said. "I have been an individual all-around champion, I've got All-American awards, but most important to me are the three out of four team championships that I've walked away with. All of that has played a huge part in me making the Olympic Games. It's been an incredible experience."

Dave Reed covers college sports for ESPN.com.