Six hundred miles to the south and east of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Jake Dalton still wakes up each day and throws on his maroon and silver, a Sooner through and through, his eyes fixated on a second consecutive Olympic team, thanks in part to his tailor-made training base in Norman, Okla.
“I love training here,” Dalton, 24, told USA Gymnastics in a phone interview last week. “It’s a team atmosphere, even though it’s not my team. But we’re cheering each other on. I love being around them, and then I can come home and relax with my dogs and my wife and get away from the gymnastics part of it.”
It’s a balance that Dalton, part of the 2012 London team, feels suits him as he gears up to make the Olympic squad for a second time.
“I can come home and cook and watch Netflix and hang out,” Dalton said. “It’s part of my recovery.”
Next weekend, Dalton will start his season in full at the Pacific Rim Championships presented by Hershey’s, in Everett, Wash., after making an appearance at the Winter Cup in February. It’s his first full push on his shoulder after he had surgery in August, forcing him to miss the World Championships.
“Pretty much everything is back to normal,” says Dalton, who has two individual medals to his name at past World Championships. “I haven’t been doing much on pommel horse because it kills my wrist, but everything is going really well. I’m doing all my routines.”
Dalton has counted on a support team – including the OU men’s gymnasts – in Norman: His coach, Mark Williams, is a mentor and daily presence; as is training partner Steven Legendre; and his wife, Kayla, a former collegiate competitor herself.
“My symbolic role is that I represent life outside of gymnastics,” Kayla explains. “Athletes need a mental break from sport, and Jake and I are all about being home when we are home and not thinking or worrying about work or gym. As a former gymnast, I admire Jake’s dedication. That aspect of our relationship is pretty special and unique.”
Dalton says in this Olympic cycle, he feels more settled in his training, approach and what’s to come over the next few months. There is no worries over what to expect or how things are going to play out, more just a confidence that he’s been there, done that, and now it’s time to repeat his recipe for success.
Dalton even sees his injury – a cist on his labrum – as a kind of blessing.
“It’s always kind of nice to get a little bit of a break,” Dalton said. “You’re non-stop otherwise. I mentally relaxed. I have been going to major international events since 2009, 2011. It was year-round competing. I got a mental break.”
His goals for Pacific Rim more revolve around the U.S. team that will be there, which includes himself, Sam Mikulak, John Orozco, Alex Naddour, Eddie Penev and Donnell Whittenburg.
“I want to go there and mesh together as a team,” he said. “I want everyone to understand what it’s like as a team ; it’s different. It feels different. We want to get the experience that we need as individuals but also while competing for each other.”
It’s a mindset that has been fostered in Oklahoma, partly in thanks to Williams, who Dalton now considers a close friend.
“The focus [for Jake] has shifted from the team being the priority to creating opportunities to compete internationally and make World and Olympic teams,” explains Williams, Oklahoma’s men’s gymnastics coach. “It is still necessary to push him toward those goals whether we share a friendship or are working in a strictly business relationship. Our biggest challenge has been working through the surgery he had on his shoulder last year. This setback has forced him to recover and rehab for the past few months. He is just now getting back into the form he needs for another Olympic bid.”
A recent trip to Colorado Springs for National team camp was a good check in for Dalton, who said he felt as though he “hit” his routines, something that excited him post-surgery. He is daily checking in on his training, progress and positioning: Is he doing enough for Rio? Is he doing too much?
“There’s a constant stress slash nervousness where you’re always wanting to make sure you’re doing the right things,” Dalton explained. “Am I strong enough? Good enough? Outside of the gym, am I eating the right things? Am I getting the right sleep? Am I recovering? I want to do all of that.”
That, however, is where the 2012 experience comes in, Dalton said.
“I have gone through this,” he said of the lead-up to the London Games. “That [experience] calms down those nerves a little bit.”
There was a sting, however, Dalton recalls, among the American men after they had won bronze at the 2011 World Championships that they walked away from London having placed fifth. That is something he hopes to be a part of in rectifying this coming summer.
“I didn’t expect the level of competition that everyone brings to the Olympic Games. It is incredible,” he said. “Coming out of the Olympics, it was an eye-opening experience. Everyone is on their game. You have to be ready mentally and physically.”
The fact that the U.S. men come into 2016 without a Worlds medal draped around their collective neck is a good thing, Dalton said he believes.
“We don’t want to be too confident in the Olympics.”
What Dalton is confident in is his team – his community – that he’s surrounded himself with in Norman with Williams, Legendre and Kayla.
“Our life in Oklahoma and set-up at OU is 100 percent dedicated to Jake’s training,” Kayla said. “Jake loves having the opportunity to train around a team. Mark and Jake have a unique coach-athlete relationship. There is no special sauce – it just works for them.”
But if it is a recipe that gets Dalton to Rio, he can truly call it home-cooked success.