ST. LOUIS (AP) — For the first time in five years, Jonathan Horton wasn't on the podium at the U.S. gymnastics championships.
And he wasn't bothered in the least.
"This isn't about me anymore," he said after finishing fourth Saturday. "This is about Team USA and what we're going to do in London."
Horton has been the heart and soul of the U.S. team since Athens Olympics champion Paul Hamm stepped away. A two-time U.S. champion, he led the inexperienced and underrated Americans to the bronze medal in Beijing, then added a silver on high bar. Two years later, he won the bronze at the world championships, joining Hamm as the only Americans to win all-around medals in the past three decades.
But he's also the ultimate team guy, and no one is happier at how much stronger and deeper the Americans have gotten. After saying for years he thinks the Americans could challenge China and Japan for a team title, Horton's teammates are showing it's not just talk. John Orozco edged defending champion Danell Leyva for the title in the final rotation Saturday, and Sam Mikulak was third in his first senior nationals.
"We've got three national champions and a new guy on the scene, and we can all be better," Horton said. "(The team gold), that's my driving force. I remind these guys constantly, 'Congrats, you won. Good job. Do that in (team finals) and I'll be happy.'"
Don't overlook Horton in the individual events, however. This was his first competition since breaking his left foot at last fall's world championships, and his goal was simply to "feel like a gymnast again." Adrenaline contributed to a mistake in his very first event in prelims Thursday, and a poor pommel horse routine that night didn't help his all-around score. He also botched his landing on vault Saturday, pitching forward and having to put his hands down.
Take those mistakes away, and it might have been a three-way race for first. Horton posted the highest score of the two-day meet on still rings and was third on high bar. He was fifth on parallel bars.
"I knew there was no way I was going to be able to beat Sam, John and Danell with two major errors Thursday and messing up my vault today," Horton said. "(But) I feel like I'm in a good spot. I feel like I'm back in the zone."
SHAKEN NOT STIRRED: Nothing fazes Sam Mikulak.
Determined to make a good impression after missing last year's U.S. gymnastics championships with two broken ankles, Mikulak didn't flinch when he realized the parallel bars were loose.
After he had already started his routine.
"I thought the bar was going to fall and I was going to die," Mikulak conceded.
Didn't look like it. As coach Kurt Golder hustled to fix one rail and then the next — the only things standing between a gymnast and the floor almost 7 feet below — Mikulak calmly went about his routine, swinging from one handstand into another with precise elegance. Only after he finished, hitting the mat with a solid thud, did he show any sign of the emotions that had been swirling, letting out a scream and thumping his chest.
"We talk about it being adversity and you have to handle the unexpected ... and he did that," said Golder, Mikulak's coach at Michigan.
He's had some practice.
At an international meet in Puerto Rico last summer, Mikulak fell on floor exercise, his first event. The 2011 NCAA champion initially feared he'd blown out his Achilles, then was told the ankles were only badly bruised. Trainers at the meet "taped them up real thick," and Mikulak continued, doing every event but vault.
"We got X-rays the next day. Yeah, they're broken," he said.
The injury kept him out of the U.S. championships, where he'd won the junior title in 2010, and also cost him a shot at the world championships team. Instead, Mikulak watched the U.S. men win the bronze medal back in Ann Arbor, Mich., with his Wolverine teammates.
"It was definitely exciting to see them do so well and it made me want to be a part of it," said Mikulak, who grew up in Corona del Mar, Calif. "It definitely motivates me to push to get on that level."
ON THE MOVE: Jake Dalton never wastes an opportunity to make a good impression.
The reigning NCAA champion is making a case to be on the London Olympic squad, winning the vault and floor exercise titles and finishing in the top eight on still rings, parallel bars and high bar. He tied for fifth overall.
"It was a good day," he said. "I hit all my events and I think I improved a lot."
Power is, obviously, Dalton's strength. But he takes great pains with his technique, and it shows. Though it's clear his early coaches focused on the basics, giving him a great foundation, technique tends to be the first thing that goes as gymnasts get older and start working on bigger, tougher tricks.
Not with Dalton. He has some of the prettiest routines of any American, with perfectly pointed toes, pencil-straight legs and textbook body position. Those may sound like small details, but they pay off big — particularly with international judges.
First, though, he has to get past the U.S. selection committee.
Only the top two gymnasts from nationals and Olympic trials, June 28 to July 1 in San Jose, Calif., have a shot at automatic spots on the Olympic squad. The selection committee chooses the rest of the squad based on what combination will have the highest scoring potential in the team finals in London.
While pommel horse will probably always be a struggle for Dalton, he hopes his consistency and scoring potential on the other five events will make him a must-have when the team is named July 1.
"It's always on my mind, thinking about the selection committee," he said. "That almost makes me more nervous now than doing my gymnastics. I just have to concentrate on being consistent and showing them I can hit my routines."
ROPES AND MATS: New U.S. champion John Orozco, runner-up Danell Leyva, Sam Mikulak, Jonathan Horton, Chris Brooks and Jake Dalton automatically earned spots at the Olympic trials later this month with their top-six finishes. Paul Ruggeri, Brandon Wynn, Alex Buscaglia and David Seder made it through an even-based point system, and Glen Ishino, Steven Legendre, C.J. Maestas, Josh Dixon and Alex Naddour got the final five spots as wild cards. ... Danell Leyva posted a 16.35 on high bar and a 16 on parallel bars, the only scores above 16 that didn't come on vault. ... David Sender, the 2008 U.S. champ who missed the Beijing Games after injuring his ankle the day before the Olympic trials, was fifth on vault and finished 11th overall.