"I was in awe," Horton said. "It's just incredible, the impact they can have on you when you're a kid."
On Wednesday, Horton had the chance to leave a similar impression on the next generation of young gymnasts. The 25-year-old U.S. Olympian -- he won a silver medal in the high bar and a bronze medal in the team competition at the 2008 Beijing Games -- visited Snohomish County to promote the Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships, March 16-18 at Everett's Comcast Arena.
One of his appearances was at Everett's Leading Edge Gymnastics Academy, where he spent 45 minutes telling stories, answering questions and signing autographs for about 100 wide-eyed youngsters.
And his message was that any one of them might someday follow in his gymnastics footsteps.
"I've had an awesome career," he told the kids. "And I want to let you guys know that you can do it, too, if you put your mind to it."
Horton, who started gymnastics when he was 4, attended the University of Oklahoma where he won 18 career All-America honors and six NCAA individual titles. In addition to his Olympic medals, Horton won a bronze medal in the all-around at the 2010 world championships and another bronze medal in the team competition at the 2011 world championships in October.
Despite a recent foot fracture and torn ligament that has him in a walking boot -- "It's pretty cool, I've got two screws in my foot right now holding it all together," he told the kids -- Horton expects to be part of the U.S. Olympic team for the 2012 Games in London from late July to mid-August.
He hopes to be healthy for the Pacific Rim Championships, and he asked the youngsters "to wish me luck that I can recover quickly so I can be there."
The Pacific Rim Championships are held every two years and usually include gymnasts from Australia, Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Columbia, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, Russia, Singapore and the United States. Since China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. are the traditional powers in men's and women's gymnastics, the Everett event should include most of the world's elite competitors.
"This is one of the most prestigious events of the year," Horton told his audience. "It will be your up-close-and-personal chance to see a lot of Olympic gymnasts competing as they prepare for the Olympic Games. And you're going to have it right here in your hometown. Is that cool?"
"Yeah," the kids shouted in chorus.
Even as Horton was signing the last of his autographs before heading out the door to another gymnastics club and another gathering of wide-eyed youngsters, the kids at Leading Edge were starting their daily workouts. And most of them, no doubt, had been inspired by the visit of a U.S. Olympian.
Having him appear at the club "was absolutely cool," said Leading Edge owner Sheila Bath. "It's so motivating for the kids. And it was exactly what some of these kids needed to hear. It was amazing."
The club has gymnasts from pre-school to high school, and many of the younger kids had probably not heard of their famous visitor, Bath acknowledged.
"But I guarantee you they're all going to go get on YouTube and they're going to look up Jonathan Horton," she said.
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