Sooners look to have impact at Rio Olympics

Coach Mark Williams and former OU gymnast Jake Dalton talk over routines as they prepare for the 2016 Olympic Games.

By Michael Kinney

When the U.S. Men’s Gymnastics team takes to the competition floor for the first time during the 2016 Olympic games, they will have a familiar look to them. Those who have followed the Oklahoma gymnastics program for the past decade or so will recognize several faces.

Three of the five gymnasts who will represent the United States in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil during the Olympic games are alumni of the Sooners. They include Jake Dalton, Chris Brooks and Alex Naddour. They will join Sam Mikulak and  Danell Leyva, who round out the five-man squad.

Leading US team into Olympic battle is OU head coach Mark Williams. After four previous trips to the Olympics as an assistant and individual coach, this will be his first turn as the lead man in charge.

“I am honored,” Williams said. “It’s amazing to be in a position to lead any team at the Olympic Games, and I feel we are very fortunate to have athletes that have been part of the Olympic process in the past. I’m excited about this team. I think we have a tremendous opportunity in Rio and I’m looking forward to the journey.”

Williams, who is heading into his 18th season at Oklahoma, is coming off back to back national championships and the 10th for the Sooners’ program. That resume helped him secure the national team coaching gig.

“Obviously my Oklahoma teams have done very well over the years,” Williams said. “They want to have somebody that is in a place that continues championships. I am hoping I can put the pieces together with the five man team where we’re in a great position to be able to be put up on the medal stand at the end of the competition.”

This will be Dalton’s second trip to the Olympics. He was part of the 2012 squad that took fifth in London.

But being able to go to the games with his coach leading the way makes it even more special for him.

“It’s incredible,” Dalton said. “It has to be so rewarding for him. Even for us to watch it for him because he deserves it. No one deserves it more than this guy. He is such a good coach because he can put together a training plan and make the athletes peak at the perfect time. That’s kind of what he has been known for in college. And he’s been doing it with me the last three years, helping me put together training programs. He is going to be a great coach out on the floor.”

The men’s team has had a chance to bond and get to know each other in the weeks heading up to the games, which last from Aug. 5-21. But because of the Oklahoma connection, it was a much easier task than previous Olympic teams.

“I feel very comfortable with those guys having coached them before,” Williams said. “I know they have been on championship teams and have represented the United States at World Championships and at the Olympics for Jake. They are guys that have earned their spots and in the next three or four weeks we will put in the training necessary to go to Rio very well prepared.”

This is the first time since 1984 that there have been three members from once school on a gymnastics team. Then it was UCLA, who had three of the six Olympic gymnast.

“It’s incredible. Speaks volumes about the program, about the coaches here and even the athletes,” Dalton said. “Everybody gets here, they go through Mark’s training. It’s hard, but if you stick with it, you’re going to come out a better gymnasts. Everybody is really a family here when they are training together. They you get the support from the University and we get to team in this amazing facility every single day. Couldn’t ask for a better place to train.”

Even as the team prepares for the Olympics, controversies continue to surround the games. Everything from beaches polluted with body parts to the Zika virus has driven away other athletes from competing.

But Dalton said, for him, it’s worth the risk to fulfill a lifelong dream and wear USA across his chest.

“There is a lot of media about it. I think some of it is a little bit over hyped,” Dalton said. “I think there are concerns some people need to make sure they are aware of. For me, if I get the opportunity to represent my country at the Olympic Games, I’m not backing down.”

Kinney is a freelance writer. Go to Eyeamtruth.com

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