Saturday, June 30, 2012

Josh Dixon...and the Two-Minute Drill

Injuries are never welcome. And, you could argue that no time is a good time for an injury…especially not the year leading up to the Olympics.

Josh on the rings.
This is what San Jose native, Josh Dixon, had to endure. He tore his Achilles a year ago right after winning the NCAA team title at Stanford. He had it all mapped out…trying out for the world team last summer leading into preparing for the Olympics this year.
Instead, he found himself in physical therapy the entire summer just trying to do the basics…walking, running, getting up on his toes. He was nowhere near training for gymnastics let alone being the elite athlete he had been just a few months earlier.

This was the same athlete who in high school was a four-time member of the USA Junior National Team and competed at the 2006 Visa U.S. Championships and placed second in all-around, first on floor exercise and vault, second on horizontal bar, and third on pommel horse. And, in college at Stanford won two NCAA team titles, was the 2010 U.S. floor exercise champion, second in floor at the 2011 Visa Championships, and first in floor at the 2010 Visa Championships.
But, he didn’t let this injury end his dream. He pushed forward and made a remarkable recovery and is now vying for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

I spent some time with Josh prior to the U.S. Gymnastic Olympic Trials to learn more about his journey.
PJ: How does it feel to be competing in your backyard?
Josh: It’s really exciting. It’s going to be loud! The local club gymnasts and Stanford will be out. It’s cool to come back. I’ll be giving it my best effort. It’s full circle from when I was six years old starting with a club in San Jose. The opportunity to compete here is a unique and fun position to be in.

PJ: How did you get started in gymnastics?
Josh: Both my sisters [Kira and Mikka] did gymnastics when I was like 4 or 5 years old. I just saw them and I’d go home and try to flip around in the backyard trying to do what I saw them and others do at the gym. The daredevil inside of me wanted to walk on my hands and flip around. My parents wanted to put me in a safe environment to do these things so they signed me up.

PJ: What is it about gymnastics that you love?
Josh: At this level you have to have the passion. Otherwise, you wouldn’t get this far. It’s always changing…every four years. It’s about striving for perfection. It’s a unique sport as it challenges you mentally, emotionally, and physically on a daily basis. Not sure how to articulate what makes it stick. I just love the sport.

PJ: How did you end up at Stanford?
Josh: Being from this area I always saw Stanford and Cal through our clubs. I thought someday I wanted to compete at that level. I wanted to stay in California to compete and these were two top-notch academic and gymnastics universities. Other schools recruited me [Michigan, Ohio State, etc.], but Stanford had everything. The Athletic Department is state-of-the-art in every sport. There is no better place to get an education and discover what you want to do in and out of the classroom. Another draw was that six of us came from the junior national team and there was the opportunity to create a dynasty for the next four years…another plus.

PJ: What was it about the program that lifted you to the next level?
Josh: Much of the credit goes to our Assistant Coach J.D. Reive, who is now the head coach at Iowa. He was the mastermind behind our success. He had the workouts all laid out for the entire year. He knows how to develop athletes and bring out their potential. A few of us [including Alex Buscaglia] worked with J.D. in a small group for two or three years. He brought excellence out of us. He is knowledgeable and is always finding new ways to develop juniors into national team level gymnasts. It’s a huge transition from junior level. You come in and have confidence and think it will be easy. But, once you are there you realize all the hard work…I need to push myself and then some to compete at the senior level. He just instilled this into us from Day 1.

PJ: How special was the 2011 NCAA Team Title?
Josh: It’s hard to describe how much the team jelled in three years. We lost the National Championship at home freshman year, then won in 2009, and was edged out by Michigan in 2010. In 2011, the seniors had one focus…to lead the team in this collective effort. We focused all year and knew in the back of our mind that there was no stopping us. If we hit, we win. The first day we were only up by six points and won the finals by three points. It was a huge testament to how deep our team was. We had at least eight guys per event that were the top scorers in the country. The competition in our own training gym was tougher than Nationals. When we were freshman there was so much hype on our team. It was expected that we would win all year [and we didn’t]. As seniors we were in position to lead our team and we had the utmost confidence. It was an amazing experience and I would do the four years again in a heartbeat.

PJ: Floor seems to be one of your strengths. You finished first at the 2006, 2007, and 2010 Visa Championships; second in the 2011 Winter Cup Challenge; and first in the 2012 National Qualifier. Is this your favorite event?
Josh: It’s one of my favorites. I picked up quickly. I am naturally powerful and understand the technique and can replicate it quicker than other events. Although, I do have a love/hate relationship with floor as it gave me one of my most traumatic injuries. I tore my Achilles. Last April a few weeks after the NCAA Championships I was at camp and pushing towards the summer…a chance to make the world team. It’s been both the worst and best thing to happen to me in the gym. In the big picture it helped me rededicate to the sport.

I spent the entire summer learning how to walk, then run, then get back up on my toes, again. There were a lot of questions…do I want to continue to do gymnastics? I’ve had a successful career—I made the National team and a rewarding collegiate career. How many people can say they won a championship two out of four years? It made me appreciate my ability to do gymnastics. I rededicated myself to the dream I had as a child to make the National team and the Olympics. It was a long process. I enjoyed pushing myself to get back. I’m happy I didn’t give up when I had the chance.
PJ: What was your mindset during recovery?

Josh: My focus was one day at a time…how can I improve on yesterday? Typically the recovery time is eight months to a year to come back from this injury…to have some power level and to take the pounding of gymnastics. In January and February people were impressed at how far I’d come. It’s so crazy to think about it that I’ve scratched the surface to meet my goals…to be mentally and physically strong enough to get here. Yet at the same time, I have to put my head down and work harder. I haven’t reached all my goals yet.

PJ: What do you think your chances are to make the Olympic team?
Josh: There is so much depth, talent, and so many competitors. And, competitors with more experience who have been doing this longer than me. At the same time, I’m putting forth the best effort I can to make the team.

PJ: You recently came out. What there anything in the timing of this that was important?
Josh: I came out to a lot of my friends and teammates in September of 2010, the beginning of my senior year in college. It was a big weight off my shoulders. Another student-athlete I was seeing at the time helped me through that process. I did the interview two months before it was published [by Outsport]. It had nothing to do with timing…I think that I just hadn’t been competing for a while so they waited to publish.

A friend of mine who is now at Harvard, said I was in a unique position in the LGBT community to be a huge role model in sports. It was interesting to see someone approach me and saw I was a role model in gymnastics and could be an even bigger role model to help break down boundaries…that it’s OK and not a big deal. That was my motivation behind it. To me, I’m glad I could be a role model for a bigger crowd. I’m focused on gymnastics, I worked for this my entire life and it’s not that big of a deal.
PJ: Do you have any advice for younger gymnasts?
Josh: Not settling, especially as this sport is changing so quickly. You need to have the internal drive for gymnastics. If you really love it and want to do it, you’ll wake up each day always improving. Think about how much better you can be today than you were yesterday. Learning, being open to changes, focusing on the details will help you get to a very high level.

PJ: Do you have a routine to prepare?
Josh: Visualization. I had a coach when I was eight who instilled this in me. I relax, block out distractions right before my routine. It’s muscle memory and focusing on one skill at a time. Too much thinking is when mistakes happen. Countless hours of work is done, I turn off my mind and let it go.