Jonathan Horton likes to tell the story, not because it spotlights the crowning moments of his 28-year gymnastics career — like his silver medal in the 2008 Olympics or his bronze medal in the 2010 world championships — but because, in many ways, it reveals the way he secured those accomplishments in the first place.
It was October of 2006, and Horton and five other U.S. teammates took to Denmark to compete in the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. The Americans figured to vie for a medal, Horton said, and the Oklahoma junior was beginning to force his way onto the national gymnastics scene. This represented the next step in Horton’s career.
Then, disaster. Horton fell off the bar six times, still the most by a U.S. gymnast at a world championship. As a result, the Americans finished 13th, still the worst finish by a U.S. team at such an event.
Horton contemplated quitting the sport altogether. He wanted to hang up his gym bag for good.
“You either sway to one side or the other in a moment like that,” Horton said Wednesday morning at Ruby Jean’s Juicery, where the Houston native traveled to promote the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships, which are set for August 8-11 at the Sprint Center. “You’re sitting there, floating with this idea of, ‘Should I quit or should I not?’
“It was that competition, actually, that made push forward harder than I ever had in my life, and it’s the reason that I had the success I had in the ‘08 Olympic Games.”
Thirteen years later, Horton’s trophy case is stocked full. It includes a silver medal in the horizontal bar at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, two bronze medals in two different world championships and, among others, a bronze medal at the 2003 Pan American Games in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Here’s the catch, though: Horton wants to stay involved with the sport. He decided to stop competing in 2016 and commit full-time to professional speaking, but by competing on the TV show “American Ninja Warrior” and its spin-off, “Ninja vs. Ninja,” Horton remains a recognizable name.
He’s also the founder of the Ninja Coalition, a “global elite management agency (that represents) celebrity athletes who engage audiences with motivational speeches, special appearances, and much more,” per its website.
It’s all connected, really. There’s an Ultimate Ninja Athlete Association and a National Ninja League, both of which host competitions across the United States. People compete in these types of leagues to try to qualify for American Ninja Warrior. That’s why Horton described Ninja competitions as “kind of the Olympics of American Ninja Warrior.”
The main difference between gymnastics and Ninja has to do with the site of each sport. Gymnasts compete on mats and bars. Ninja competitors make their livings on obstacle courses, which include rock climbing walls, balance beams, ramps and monkey bars. There’s a course in Lee’s Summit, actually: Motus Ninja Warrior. That’s part of why Horton came to the area.
“It’s hard to get it out of your system,” said Horton, who won six NCAA titles and 18 All-America honors in his four-year college career at Oklahoma. “I hope that I’m involved with the sport forever. It’s hard to do something for so long and then just go away from it. I love to be around the new athletes and help new athletes, and watch a new national champion be crowned, watch somebody go after their Olympic dream. If I can be a part of that and help in any way, that’s what I want to do.”
In essence, that’s how Horton, 33, has transitioned from competitive gymnastics to a more recognized, TV-friendly form of competition. He denied holding a position as a leader in the field, but he said he “helped bridge the gap from gymnastics to Ninja,” and he’s helped market the sport in the process. Part of that involves promoting exposure to the sport, which he hopes encourages gymnastics facilities to incorporate Ninja.
In fact, that’s why Horton was in Kansas City on Wednesday. A two-time national champion himself in 2009 and 2010, Horton said he knows “the impact that this competition has on someone’s career,” and because his passion for gymnastics is “unwavering,” he flew from Houston to Kansas City to help get the word out about the U.S. Gymnastics Championships.
“I think people that haven’t seen gymnastics before, they don’t realize how amazing it is in person,” Horton said. “When you see it up close and personal, and you see the power of the athletes, how high they jump, how fast they run… It’s amazing to see.”
He’s far from full-time in that scene, though. After all, he has a wife, Haley, and two children, Addison and David, now. Horton acknowledged that “there are kids that I know want to do what I’ve done,” but in the end, he’s “family first.”
Gymnastics is just a close second.
The next event in that sphere, at least the one on which Horton has his lens trained, will happen in Kansas City.
“The fans are die-hard fans, and then there’s people who don’t know anything about gymnastics,” Horton said. “We’re trying to close that gap a little bit, showing people that beyond the skill that these gymnasts have, they’re incredibly healthy, well-rounded athletes.
“That’s always been one of my goals — to share that whether you become an Olympian or a collegiate athlete or don’t do any of those things at all, gymnastics is such a good sport for the body. It builds such a great foundation.”