Jonathan Horton has been looking forward to this week for a long, long time.
The two-time Olympic medalist’s improbable comeback begins Friday at the P&G National Championships at Consol Energy Center, his first gymnastics competition since coming home from the 2012 London Olympics with a “completely shredded” right shoulder.
Horton wears several visible scars from the past two years. He had surgery in December 2012 to repair his right bicep, rotator cuff and labrum. After nine months of rehab, he tore his left pectoral muscle “completely off the bone,” requiring another surgery.
Now, Horton is finally back, reuniting with the entire five-man U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team, and he said he’s pain-free for the first time since college.
“Doctors told me I’m probably going to hurt forever, but the truth is I have zero pain in either shoulder,” he said.
At 28, Horton is the oldest competitor at these U.S. Championships where he has medaled 17 times since 2002.
“I’m the old man here,” Horton said Wednesday. “I have not raised my hand and done a routine in front of a judge since the high-bar finals in London. So, I’m pretty nervous, and I’ve made that very clear to everyone.”
Horton is keeping expectations “really low” for now. This week, he would be pleased with landing all six routines, which he has yet to do in practice.
The ultimate goal, though, is a third trip to the Olympics. No U.S. gymnast has competed in three Olympics in a row since Blaine Wilson in 1996, 2000 and 2004. Horton would be the oldest U.S. gymnast since 1956.
“Do I think I can roll with the big guys still?” he asked. “I do.”
As Horton spoke, his U.S. teammate Sam Mikulak, the 2013 P&G National Championships all-around champion, walked up and greeted Horton.
“[Horton] is the greatest team player you can possibly imagine,” Mikulak said.
Horton smiled. He looked content and relaxed as he spoke, but a one-word question seemed to strike a chord, and it elicited his most impassioned reply.
Why? The surgeries, the pain, the comeback. Why?
“I haven’t accomplished my goal yet,” Horton said. “I could retire from gymnastics right now and be completely satisfied with everything I’ve done. I’ve gone to the Olympics twice. I have two Olympic medals. I’ve won the national title a couple times. I’ve done some cool stuff, and I’ve had a lot of time to think and reflect on everything I’ve done.
“The truth is, I one day want to be able to say that at one point in my life I was the best in the world, at one moment in time there was nobody better than me. I’ve yet to ever do that.”
Horton has had plenty of motivation through the “dicey comeback,” too. He and his wife, Haley, had their first child, David, in July 2013. Horton, a wild child himself, had to laugh when he noticed his son trying a forward roll in his crib one night.
“I’ll be having a really crummy workout and my wife will bring David in,” Horton said. “He’s 13 months old now, and he can point and say, ‘Dada!’ It has changed my mind; gymnastics isn’t everything.”
Horton took a break from gymnastics training earlier this year to try his hand on NBC’s obstacle-course competition show American Ninja Warrior. He was just a few months removed from tearing his pectoral but wouldn’t consider dropping out.
He plummeted just short of the end of the qualifying stage — “It was kind of ironic,” he said. “I fell on rings.” — but plans to try again next year.
Until then, Horton has his focus back in the gym. And who’s to tell this guy when to quit?
“I’ve joked with many people — and it’s really not even a joke — I think I can continue on to 2020,” Horton said. “I’ll be 34, but you’re only as old as your mind tells you you are.”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.