Taking a chance works for Horton

Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- It was simple, really.

Jonathan Horton was, he said, going to go for an Olympic medal on the men’s horizontal bar or break his face.

Throwing in two new tricks, upping his degree of difficulty and making the Chinese crowd used to acrobatic high jinks go “ooh” and “aah,” in expressions of awe in any language, Horton flew to an unexpected silver medal Tuesday on the final apparatus competed at these Olympics.

Of course, it was a man from China, Zou Kai, who won gold. Defending world champion Fabian Hambuechen of Germany won bronze.


Earlier in the night, Li Xiaopeng had won gold on the parallel bars, giving the Chinese men seven of eight gold medals available. Only Poland’s Leszek Blanik, with his vault gold, spoiled a perfect Olympics for the hosts.

The seven gold medals equaled the record the Soviet Union set in 1956 and 1988, and the results erased the disappointing performance of four years ago, when the heavily favored Chinese team finished a dismal fifth.

But Horton’s silver also made the U.S. men walk away from the Olympics with some momentum. After two of the team’s best gymnasts, Paul and Morgan Hamm, withdrew in the last few days before the Beijing competition began, there were questions about whether the men’s team would even qualify for the eight-team final.

The U.S. not only qualified but won a team bronze. Then Horton, 22, of Houston, did a final routine he had never practiced before.


“Go big or go down,” was Horton’s mantra over the last three practice days. As Horton upped the difficulty in his routine at practice, even the Chinese competitors noticed, said Horton’s coach, Mark Williams. “Sunday when he started doing his stuff, the whole practice gym went quiet. The other guys were asking, ‘What is he doing?’ ”

Going for a medal, it turns out. If not for a small hop on the landing, Horton might have beat out Zou. “He had a very difficult routine,” Zou said. “His performance was stunning.”

U.S. teammate Justin Spring had watched Horton’s chance-taking routine and wasn’t surprised. “He’s a wild man,” Spring said. “He believes in himself, and he never thinks he’ll fall.”

This time, he didn’t.