During a bumpy, painful and costly trek to the Tokyo Olympics, Alec Yoder heard many voices. He listened to one.
It was his coach, Gene Watson. Not critics who hate Yoder’s celebratory outbursts, skeptics who call him a choker or USA Gymnastics leaders who omit him from national teams.
Instead, he said, Watson’s voice is “in my head.”
The longtime Indianapolis coach died April 2, 2020, in Missouri City, Texas. He was 69. His influence survives.
As long as 10 years ago, Watson spoke to Yoder about not only making it to an Olympics, but winning a medal. On June 26, the same day Watson was inducted posthumously into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame, Yoder made the Olympic team.
Watson even narrowed it to the date of Yoder’s Olympic debut: July 24, 2020. The coach was a year off because of the pandemic but correct on all else. Follow this plan, Watson told the Indianapolis gymnast, and this is what happens.
“I followed his plan, and here is the possibility I have,” Yoder said. “It speaks a lot to his genius.”
The pathway was more gravel and potholes than paved and smooth. But Yoder stayed on the road despite all the detours.
Indeed, if circumstances had been otherwise, the 24-year-old might not be going to Tokyo.
Yoder, 5-10 and 145 pounds, can no longer be an all-around gymnast — that is, do all six events — because of chronic knee pain. He had surgery on his left shoulder after the 2019 national championships, but the pandemic delay allowed him to grow stronger for 2021. He was never going to make the four-man team, but a rules change allowed for specialists. The United States had room for one, and that became Yoder.
“It just feels like everything was lining up for me,” he said.
There were times the Olympics seemed inevitable.
At 17, Yoder won a bronze medal in the all-around in the 2014 Youth Olympics at Nanjing, China. He was second on pommel horse in the 2016 NCAAs as an Ohio State freshman. He was third in the NCAA all-round in 2018, a year in which he made the U.S. team for the World Championships.
There were times when the response was despair:
>> At the 2015 nationals in Indianapolis, Yoder was leading when he fell off the horse. At 18, he would have been the youngest U.S. champion in the event in 40 years.
>> In 2016, he had surgery on his right shoulder and was out of the Olympic Trials.
>> In the 2018 worlds at Doha, Qatar, he fell off the horse in qualifications. “After that, it was, ‘Yoder’s a choke artist. He can’t come through. He’s exactly what we said he was.’ I heard a lot of stuff like that,” he said.
>> During the 2019 nationals, he injured his left shoulder and had another surgery. “A lot of gymnastics is pushing through injuries,” he said. “The things that we do, it’s almost guaranteed for you to get hurt at some point.”
>> After winning pommel horse at 2020 and 2021 Winter Cups, he was left off the national team. So for a year and a half, he was ineligible for a stipend of nearly $2,000 a month.
Yoder scrambled to pay rent for his Columbus apartment. He made deliveries for DoorDash, did photography for a few clients and made withdrawals from savings.
“In my mind, the end goal was, I was going to make the Olympic team,” he said. “If I’m at a job for seven or eight hours a day, it’s not going to work out. I bunkered down and tried to do everything I could to salvage as much as I could.
“I never joined this sport to get rich. If I go broke trying to make the Olympic Games, it’s all good with me.”
It has been an expensive quest. Yoder’s father, Mike, once estimated his son’s gymnastics career had cost the family $100,000 before he left for college.
Yoder once participated in football and basketball at Heritage Christian School but eventually concentrated on gymnastics. He was home-schooled to allow more time to train. For motivation, he kept an Olympic flag by his bed.
Yoder has been transparent about his journey because he said it is important to do so. He has that in common with Simone Biles, who is also 24. It has been meaningful for both to make the Olympic team together.
He said they became friends in 2013, “when I wasn’t great at gymnastics,” and before anyone realized the greatness that awaited Biles. They have endured different pressures, but always pressures.
“When you put in the work, from the very, very bad to the very, very good, that makes a moment like me making the Olympic Games so much sweeter,” Yoder said. “Because I know what it’s like to be all the way at the bottom. Now I know what it’s like to be at the top.”
That is how he felt after high scores in last month’s nationals at Fort Worth, Texas, and Olympic Trials at St. Louis. He did his dismount, raised his hands, then flexed and screamed in exultation.
The routine itself lasts just 40 seconds. But pommel horse “just comes at you,” Watson once said. There are no interludes as the gymnast swings both legs and moves along the leather-covered frame featuring plastic handles (pommels).
Yoder’s reaction reflected release of frustrations, anxieties, insecurities and setbacks.
“In that moment, all your hard work has paid off,” he said. “People always complain about how loud I am, and it’s obnoxious. But if you were in my shoes, you worked like this, going against the grain, giving up opportunities, giving up friendships, staying home and waking up early and eating right . . .
“If you did all of that and had a moment like that, you wouldn’t just sit there and clap. It’s what I always want people to get through their head.”
Making the team has seemingly relieved him of burdens. He acknowledged feeling under-appreciated and forced to prove to others what he knew himself: He was good enough. Now that others agree, he said, his confidence has grown.
In a mock meet at Colorado Springs, Colo., he said he was better than he was at the trials.
“As soon as you make the Olympic team, the pressure goes down,” said Casimiro Suarez, an Ohio State assistant coach and 1980 Cuban Olympian.
Yoder needs one of the top eight scores during qualifications to make the Aug. 1 final on pommel horse. He speculated he will score higher from international judges than from those in the United States.
The favorite is Great Britain’s Max Whitlock, 28, defending gold medalist and world champion in 2015, 2017 and 2019. He has the highest start value, 17.0, compared with Yoder’s 16.5. Yoder called Whitlock his idol.
Yet no one is invulnerable. Whitlock fell off the horse at April’s European Championships. For years, it has been a weak event for American gymnasts.
“My mentality has always been, pommel horse should be easy,” Yoder said. “I do it so much. I’m tall, I have good lines. I love swinging pommel horse.
“Over the past year, I’ve really figured out rhythm and exactly what I have to do to get in that rhythm in competitions.”
Pommel horse is Yoder’s sole shot at a medal. Even if the United States wins a team medal, he is excluded. He said the four other U.S. gymnasts have made him feel part of this team, and he would be as excited by a medal as if he were awarded one himself.
He dreamed of performing in front of a large Olympic crowd, and there won’t be one. The silence in Tokyo will be no different from that of Ohio State’s Steelwood Athletic Training Facility, a 1.4-mile walk from Ohio Stadium.
Yoder never required the cheers of 100,000. There will be a TV audience of billions.
“If I make an Olympic final, I’m not swinging to get fourth. I’m going to swing, and I’m going to swing to be perfect,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to win an Olympic medal. I’m looking for a great routine, not a good one.
“I know I’m on a good trajectory. I feel the best I’ve ever been.”
It was a trajectory laid out by his late coach. The flight path remains true.