By Nick McCarvel
Jake Dalton isn’t sure what’s next in his life, but he is sure of this one thing: Gymnastics will play a large part in it.
Last week, the two-time Olympian and four-time World medalist announced his retirement from competitive gymnastics, but he was in the gym the next day, working out and – in a new role – coaching at his family’s Gymnastics Nevada gym in Reno.
It’s a place that has been pivotal in his career from the start, and somewhere he expects to continue to be a sponge even as he morphs from a student and competitor into a mentor and coach.
“The one thing that I’ve loved about this sport so much and that has always stuck with me is there’s always something to learn,” Dalton told USA Gymnastics in a phone interview last week. “There’s always something new to look forward to at the gym. I still love going back to the gym. I have flashbacks of my childhood when I go back there.”
The newness will stick with Dalton for a good while, the 25 year old saying that the decision to walk away revolved around his body and a fading desire to do competitive routines. An injury at this February’s Winter Cup was a sign to him that the time had come.
“I was trying to let my body recover, but I was mentally kind of drained,” Dalton explained of his post-Rio mindset. “Everything started to hurt more and more. I felt my body slowly failing and… getting hurt in Las Vegas was another sign to me. I’m getting older. It’s hard for my body to keep up.”
While he sought advice from his University of Oklahoma and Olympic coach Mark Williams, as well as teammates like Steven Legendre and his wife, Kayla, a former gymnast herself, Dalton couldn’t help but think: Gymnastics had “consumed my life,” he said. “I was kind of looking forward to the next step.”
Before he steps forward, however, it’s only fair for Dalton to look back at what was one of the most consistent and reliable stays on the U.S. Men’s National Team in the last decade.
A breakout talent at 17 in 2009, he made his first senior national team that year (something he calls one of the most “exciting moments of my career”) and then launched himself onto the World Championships team that fall.
He’d help the U.S. men win team bronze at the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo, then the next year make the London Olympic team at the age of 20. The U.S. men would finish a disappointing fifth that year – as they did in Rio – a pair of results that Dalton calls a “mental struggle” to make peace with.
But Dalton’s gymnastics rarely failed him, especially when it counted most for the team. At the 2014 World Championships it was up to him to hit his floor routine – the last of the U.S. men to go in the team’s last rotation of the final – to assure Team USA earn a spot on the podium.
He would hit a 15.900 on floor, not only the highest on the American team, but the highest in the men’s team event final.
The U.S. would win bronze.
“It was one of the most nerve-wracking situations I’ve been in,” Dalton recalled candidly. “I stuck the landing and went nuts. It’s one of those moments that really felt amazing. It was the last routine and meant we won a medal or not. I just relied on my training in that moment.”
Dalton’s chances of appearing in a second Olympics took a hard hit in 2015 when he needed shoulder surgery, forced to miss the P&G Championships and then left off the World Championships team as he recovered. But – in line with his avid training and hard work – he made a full recovery by the Olympic season, and called that perseverance one of the prouder moments of his career.
“I was pretty happy with the way I was able to come back within a year and make the Olympic team,” he said. “I was consistent and successful in competition.”
Last week after Dalton made his initial retirement announcement, he sat for over 30 minutes and watched messages pour in from all over the world. A few days later he hosted an Instagram Live video, fans asking him questions from Mexico and Australia and Brazil and Switzerland and beyond.
“A lot of people were just saying how much they loved watching my gymnastics,” he said. “That allows me to feel good about my career. It satisfies me with the job that I did… and helps make walking away a little easier.”
There are no Olympic medals to his name, but Dalton easily gets the gold for most reliable teammate. That accolade was a goal of his, too: It’s what motivated him from the start.
“I really just wanted to be someone that my team could count on,” he said. “Something I’ll always hold close is that I don’t think I ever fell in a routine that counted for the team. That was something that I was pretty proud of.”
Dalton calls the lack of an Olympic medal “bittersweet,” but points out he’s one of few athletes that not only got to go to the Olympics but did so twice, and says he knows the brutal work he and the U.S. team put in for the two quads leading up to the Games. That’s his solace.
“It just wasn’t our day,” he said, speaking in particular about Rio.
But now each day for Dalton is new. He’s spending more time with his wife Kayla and his extended family in Nevada, and has enjoyed working in the family gym and learning the business and management side of things. The last few months he’s been tasked as the boys’ head coach as the gym searches for a new full-time one. He’s also working on growing his YouTube presence to provide a paid service that focuses on fitness, well being and – of course – gymnastics.
Dalton will be in attendance at this week’s P&G Championships in Anaheim, this time sitting on the sidelines and cheering on the next crop of Olympic hopefuls, something he admitted would feel “strange.”
For him, however, the process never stops.
“I know that I made the right decision, but that doesn’t mean that it has been easy,” he admitted, breaking into a stilted laughter. “But gymnastics has taught me to make goals. When I make a goal, I’m going to do anything and everything in my power to make it happen and be successful.”
“It doesn’t always happen the way I want it to, but that’s what gymnastics has taught me that I’m going to apply to my life now.”