Summer Olympics 2012: Gymnast Jonathan Horton keeps an eye on Japan and China

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Never has third place been so satisfying.

Coming into the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the U.S. men's gymnastics team was shaping up as one of the favorites in the team events. Led by Paul and Morgan Hamm, the Americans were considered a near lock for a silver or even a gold medal.

But then disaster struck. As the games got under way, Paul was forced to withdraw from competition due to hand and shoulder injuries, followed 10 days later by his brother with a bad ankle.

Suddenly, the team with its eyes on the podium was picked to finish out of the top eight and be forgotten. That is, until a scrappy unit led by Houston native Jonathan Horton rallied to the cause and finished with a surprising bronze medal.

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Horton, the only male member of that team performing in the medal round at the XXX Summer Olympics in London Monday, July 30, on NBC, recalls that moment on the podium with his teammates as the proudest of his life.

"There was so much effort put into that medal and such a great story that goes behind it," Horton, who put in the signature performance at those games, tells Zap2it. "People really started doubting that we could even be in the Top 8 and make it to the team finals.

"And so when we qualified for that team final competition in, I think, sixth place, we kind of went into the meet like, 'OK, it's time to prove people wrong. And don't hold back; give everything you have, and when we leave this competition, make sure everything that we had was left at the competition.' And so when we won the bronze medal, it was so satisfying to know that we had kind of beaten the odds and accomplished something great together."

This time around, there is no flying under the radar for this U.S. team. Horton, at 26, is now considered the graybeard and backbone of a five-man squad whose average age (minus Horton) is under 20.

jonathan-horton-olympics-2-325.jpgIn fact, with 2011 world championship medalists Danell Leyva (gold), John Orozco (bronze) and Jake Dalton (bronze) in tow, the Americans are considered one of the favorites to win the team gold medal in London.

Still, Horton is taking nothing for granted.

"We know our biggest competitors right now are Japan and China," he says. "You never know, there always could be some dark horse that sets up, like Great Britain is doing really well and Russia and Germany. But you know, our main competition that we've had over the past few years has been Japan and China, and we definitely believe that we can walk away from this Olympics with a gold medal for the team. It hasn't been done since 1984, and we've got the talent, we have the passion, the heart to do it, and I think the other countries know that we are good enough to do it.

"And it's been a really long time since the U.S. has been able to put pressure on that gold-medal spot, and that's our expectation. That's what we want; that's what we're shooting for. And I have my own individual goals. I'd like to be a medalist in the all-around ... . But my No. 1 goal, the first thing that's in my mind is helping our team win a gold medal."

Horton, who also won a silver in the high bar at Beijing, is adamant when he says that winning an Olympic medal, no matter the color, is a life-changing event, pure and simple.

"Just the attention of being an Olympian itself is just great," he says, "and if you win a medal, regardless of the color, you all of a sudden have a platform. You have a platform to tell your story, to be who you want to be and inspire kids. I even had the opportunity to inspire adults.

"I mean, I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've put my medals around a grown man or woman's neck, and they get emotional over it because it's just so powerful," he continues. "And just the opportunities that have come up, even recently, with people wanting to help me out to make this next Olympics, the sponsors and just the support and family - just everything. I mean, the Olympics is a life-changing dream come true."

That dream ostensibly began at age 3, when his parents first noticed their son liked heights, doing such odd things as riding the Horton family garage door to the ceiling and shimmying up a pole in the middle of a Target department store.

"Well honestly, I don't really remember it myself," Horton says. "It's just the story that my mom tells me. And I think that was the first inkling that my parents got that 'OK, our son is kind of crazy, and he needs to be in a sport like gymnastics.' You know, anytime your son at the age of 4 climbs a 25-foot pole to the ceiling, he's got some interesting talent that probably needs to be brought out.

"I did a lot of crazy things," he continues, "like I used to climb the walls in the house. I taught myself back flips on the bed when I was like 3. And (the Target incident) was kind of the last straw, when they were like, 'OK, he's climbing poles like it's no problem for a 4-year-old. Let's put him in gymnastics.' "

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Twenty-two years later, he could find his unusual talent has brought him to a podium in London, where he'd be accepting a gold medal for his country.

"That's something that all of us athletes aspire to do," Horton says, "just to wear the red, white and blue and drape a flag over us after we are on the medal podium. There's no feeling like it to know that you did it for your country."