Olympian thrills local gymnasts

Students at Next Dimension Gymnastics on Lindeman Drive got an Olympic thrill Tuesday as London 2012 team member and reigning college champion Jake Dalton visited the gym. Dalton, who placed fifth in the floor routine in London, was promoting the Nov. 17 gymnastics champions show in Hartford.

Next Dimension owner Russ Connelly said the recent Olympics, where the American women won gold and the men finished fifth, had spurred increased interest in the sport.

"After the summer, with all the attention the team got, people are more aware of our sport, and there's been a lot more interest among boys," he said.

Dalton, though, was a hit with the girls Tuesday night, entering the gym to screams from about 100 students who had gathered to see him.

In a 15-minute question-and-answer period, Dalton fielded about 20 questions about his career and his Olympic experience.

Dalton got his start in the sport at age 6, when his baseball coach recommended he take gymnastics lessons as a way to increase his overall athleticism.

"I ended up quitting baseball two years later when my parents said I had to choose to do one or the other," he said. "I think I made the right choice, even though baseball players make a lot more money than gymnasts."

Dalton said the countless repetitions in practice kept him from being nervous during Olympic competition. His most nervous moments come before he competes, he said.

"Once I start my routine, it's pretty much autopilot," he said. "You've done the routine so many times that your mind almost goes blank and you just do it. I was most nervous before I performed in the team competition because I didn't want to mess up for my teammates."

His fifth place in the individual floor competition was almost pressure-free, he said.

"The first few competitors to go had more difficult routines than I did, and when they nailed their routines, it was obvious that I would have to be perfect to even come close to their scores," he said. "So I just went out and tried to enjoy the experience and have fun."

Dalton drew more enthusiastic cheers when he obliged a request to flex his muscles. The screams shook the gym's walls as his bicep strained against his shirt. Other questions were from students who tried to relate their experiences to his.

"How do you get over being scared to try a new skill?" one girl asked.

"I just put my trust in my coaches," he answered. "They won't have you do anything you aren't ready to do."