Oklahoma gymnast Jake Dalton has had some defining moments as an athlete, but in the next few weeks and months, they will be coming fast and furiously.
Dalton enters this week’s Men’s Gymnastics Championships as the nation’s top-arounder as a member of the No. 1 Sooners, as Oklahoma looks to claim its’ first national team title since 2008.
Then, Dalton will focus his attention on his international gymnastics career as he prepares for the Visa Championships (the U.S. Nationals) in St. Louis from June 7-10 and the U.S. Olympic Trials in San Jose, Calif., from June 28-July 1.
The junior captain’s first defining moment came at an early age when Dalton had to choose between playing baseball and competing in gymnastics. At the time, he was trying to do both, but the back-and-forth began wearing on his parents, and they asked him to choose. Maybe it was intuition, maybe luck, but the nine-year-old Dalton picked gymnastics, setting him on a path to become one of the top men’s gymnasts in the nation.
“From that point on, everything got much more intense,” Dalton said. “Gymnastics took over my life after that. That was big turning point in my life.”
Growing up in Reno, Nev., Dalton idolized gymnasts like Blaine Wilson, a five-time U.S. champion, and Paul Hamm, the only American to win the Olympic all-around gold medal.
It was after competing in the 2009 Visa Championships and right before heading to Norman, Okla., for college Dalton that started believing he could one day accomplish those feats. Dalton made the U.S. Senior National Team, comprised of the top 15 gymnasts in the nation, for his performance at that event.
“Everything set it and it made me realize that I had the potential to compete for a spot on the Olympic Team if things kept going,” Dalton said. “It motivated to work hard in the gym and keep working for that spot.”
In his first two seasons at Oklahoma, Dalton garnered seven All-America honors, including a pair of NCAA titles on floor and vault in 2011. This year, Dalton won the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation all-around title while leading the Sooners to their first league title since 2010. Internationally, he competed for the U.S. National Team last fall at the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo. The American squad brought home the bronze medal, clinching a spot in the 2012 London Olympics.
“It’s an honor to be on both teams,” Dalton said. “The experiences you gain from this are just unbelievable.”
Dalton may be the only collegiate gymnast in the running for an Olympic team spot, but he is not the only Sooner. Four of his World Championship teammates have competed at Oklahoma, including Steven Legendre, who finished his college career last year with an OU-record six NCAA titles. Legendre is finishing his degree at Oklahoma and sometimes trains with his former Sooner teammates.
“We’ve been on the World Team together in 2009 and 2011,” Dalton said. “We push each other and both get better from it. We’re also good friends and hang out all the time. It’s nice to have someone on the national team at your college that can train with you and push you and keep you motivated.”
This week, Dalton will be going after something Legendre accomplished in 2008 at OU – winning an NCAA team title. The Sooners have won five NCAA trophies since 2002, but narrowly missed last season, placing second behind Stanford.
“We’ve been ranked No. 1 almost the entire season, so that is really exciting,” Dalton said. “We just won our conference meet, and that was another stepping stone on the way to nationals. We haven’t won a team national championship since I’ve been here.”
Individually, Dalton is ranked No. 1 in the all-around with a national qualifying average of 89.162, and is listed in the top seven in all five events. He leads the nation in both the floor exercise (15.962) and parallel bars (15.287).
“He’s very stylish in the gymnastics he does,” Oklahoma head coach Mark Williams said. “Generally, he has a nice, aesthetic look to what he does … he has a nice toe point and a nice rhythm, but he is also powerful on the vault. It is a little unusual to have a gymnast that has some of both — artistic value as well as the overwhelming speed and power that go into getting up in the air really high and have some big vaults.”
Adding to the excitement is the fact OU will be hosting the NCAA Championships at the Lloyd Noble Center on April 19-21.
“We’re pretty excited to be hosting another national championship,” Williams said. “Having the No. 1 ranking going in is even more of an honor and certainly a testament the guys on this team who started this season as a fairly young group and worked very hard to achieve that. I’m looking forward to a great event and what will certainly be a terrific finals with great competition.”
The last two times OU hosted the NCAA Championships in 2006 and 2008, the Sooners won the team title.
“There’s a little pressure, but we take that pressure into our workouts and motivate ourselves,” Dalton said. “It will be great to have the home crowd behind us.”
Williams is expecting Dalton’s performances to be one of the highlights of the event.
“Last year, he didn’t have a great pommel horse during the team finals therefore his all-around definitely suffered,” Williams said. “We’re hoping he puts a great meet together for us and our fans.”
• Championship field announced