Commentary

We love Shawn Johnson, but Horton tops gymnastics finale

Updated: August 20, 2008, 7:42 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- Women's gymnastics gets most of the prime-time cameras, Wheaties boxes and ESPN commercials, but men's gymnastics is far more compelling.

It's not that I'm not impressed by what the women do. The moves they perform on the beam? To flip backward, head over tail, and land on a 4-inch beam? Ridiculous. And I'm not sure what shined brighter during Tuesday night's beam competition -- Shawn Johnson's gold-medal performance or her "I did it! I finally won it!" smile.

But when I watch the women, I always expect to see Sally Struthers coaching next to the Karolyis. The men, meanwhile, are actual adults and they not only look healthy, they look as if they just stepped off the page of a Jack Kirby comic book.

And the things they do? None of it seems possible without aid from Pixar or Industrial Light and Magic. Consider Jonathan Horton, who won the silver medal on the high bar Tuesday with a routine so staggering that it lacked only a utility belt or him shooting spider webs from his wrists. He whipped his body around the bar in exhilarating revolutions, held himself straight up with one hand, flung himself off the bar before grabbing it again on his way down and, in short, did everything but prevent Dr. Octopus from taking over the world.

"There's a reason it's my favorite event," Horton said. "I'm a little bit of a daredevil. Everyone thinks of me as kind of a crazy dude around here. It's a lot of excitement up there. When I'm up on the bar, I feel like I'm on a roller coaster. A lot of gymnastics is like that, but especially high bar -- it's so fast-paced, you just go and go and go. It's exciting and it's a lot of fun, but people don't realize how much work we put in to a fast-paced routine like that."

Trust me, Jonathan, I appreciate what must go into a performance like that. Although your official Olympic bio mentions that you're from Houston and competed for Oklahoma, it totally leaves out the part about getting bitten by a radioactive spider.

Horton won the silver Tuesday after assessing his opponents and spicing up his routine with more difficult moves to increase his start value to 6.9 (don't ask how the new scoring system works, we don't have all day).

"That was the first time I've done it," Horton said of the routine. "I've done half the routine in practice and stopped, then the other half of the routine, but never the full thing. I knew I could get through the whole routine, but it's so long and so much going on with it that, at practice, I'm too tired and I would fall on my face trying my dismount.

"The thing that was going through my mind was, if I don't gamble, I'm not going to medal. If I do gamble and fall, I'm not going to medal. But if I happen to stay on, I'm going to medal."

[+] EnlargeJonathan Horton
Jerry Lai/US PresswireJonathan Horton got some rare air during his silver-medal performance Tuesday.

He did, completing an excellent night for the U.S. team as well as a very good Olympics. Johnson, who came into the Games as a gold-medal favorite, finally struck gold with her performance on the beam, with Nastia Liukin taking the silver. The U.S. team won 10 medals, with Johnson and Liukin bringing home its two golds (if they wore all their medals at once, they would tip over). Despite the absence of the Hamm brothers, it's the most medals by the United States at an Olympics held outside America.

After Johnson and the U.S. finished second to China in the team all-around, she finished second to Liukin in the individual all-around and second again on the floor exercise. But the 4-foot-9, 16-year-old who barely survived her own birth stood very tall indeed at the top of the podium Tuesday.

"I remember saying, 'Finally!' a lot," Johnson said. "I saw Nastia when the scores came up and she said, 'Finally!' To finish off on my last routine with the gold is just the perfect ending to this whole experience. I can't stop smiling, I'm so excited."

"I'm totally, fantastically happy because she needed that," women's team coordinator Marta Karolyi said. "She was a little frustrated by not winning the all-around. This has to make her feel very good about herself and for the future. We could see she was down a little bit, but the whole team and everyone around her tried to assure her that she did an excellent job, even if she didn't win that medal."

Johnson and Liukin, who won five medals to bring the family total to nine (her father/coach, Valeri Liukin, won four for the old Soviet Union), will go on to the fame and fortune that normally accompanies women's gymnastics champs.

And as for Horton? He has the silver from the high bar, a bronze from the team all-around and, well, you never know, someone might make "Gymkata 2."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com