Freshman competes at highest level

MIHS freshman Dominic Morris captured the junior Olympic title in the pommel horse in May. Morris has been competing and training in gymnastics since he was 5 years old. - Photo courtesy of Champion Images Photography
MIHS freshman Dominic Morris captured the junior Olympic title in the pommel horse in May. Morris has been competing and training in gymnastics since he was 5 years old.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Champion Images Photography

Every kid dreams of going to the Olympics and standing, hopefully, on that medal podium, teary-eyed, as “The Star Spangled Banner” blares across an Olympic stadium.

It takes years of dedication, sweat and hard work to make the dream become even a possibility, but Dominic Morris is willing to do just that on the chance that it could happen.

Morris, 15, is a freshman at Mercer Island High School. At the beginning of May, he won the Junior Olympic national title in the pommel horse for his age group at a competition in Cincinnati, Ohio. Four years ago, he was the Junior Olympic all-around champion. After 10 years of competition, Morris has become an old hand when it comes to competing, traveling and anything gymnastics-related.

In the beginning, heading to the gym with a 5-year-old, the family’s focus was to keep Morris from hurting himself.

“He climbed all over everything,” said Joe Morris, Dominic’s father. “It was a preservation thing. He was going to jump, and we wanted him to learn how to land.” The ability to learn to land kept Dominic Morris from getting hurt as a kid and turned into a lifelong pursuit.

“I do good at competitions, and they are lots of fun,” said the high-schooler. He spends 5 1/2 hours a day in the gym, five days a week, training at Black Hills Gymnastics in Olympia. Dominic Morris grew up on the Island, but several years into the training, Joe Morris said they moved south to be closer to Olympia. The family has since moved back. Dominic Morris continues to train and commute to Olympia for practice.

While Dominic Morris competes in all men’s gymnastic events, including still rings, floor exercise, vault, parallel bars and horizontal bar, he said that the pommel horse is his best event by far.

“The pommel horse makes up for all my weaknesses,” he said. At this year’s Junior Olympic event, he finished among the top 10 in four of the events.

Unlike some athletic events where the end result rests on the shoulders of the team as a whole, gymnastics is about beating yourself — posting a better score and performance than an individual had previously done.

“One of the highlights for me is that the competitors are super supportive of each other,” said Joe Morris. He added that while Dominic Morris may be competing against his friends in the sport, there are not the intense rivalries like in other more traditional team events.

Dominic Morris travels all over the United States for meets. This year alone, he has been to California twice, Ohio, and will head to Dallas in August to compete in the Visa Cup. He was invited to the Dallas meet after qualifying in May at the Junior Olympics event. However, the traveling, intense practice schedule and general life on the go means that attending a traditional high school can be tricky.

Dominic and Joe Morris said that most other teenagers at this level of the sport are either home-schooled or go to an Internet school, but Dominic is attending MIHS because it is a great school and his parents want him to have as much of the high school experience as he can. Dominic Morris said he is gone about four weeks out of the school year for competitions, and so far, his teachers have been really understanding about his schedule. Next year, Dominic Morris said he is going to begin Running Start classes, a program which allows high school students to take college classes at a local school, to help give him more flexibility, and to make up credits which he might be missing.

Whether he is in a traditional classroom or doing schoolwork via the Internet, Dominic Morris remains focused on his goals. While dad says that the chance of a college scholarship is number one on the list, Dominic Morris said the Olympics would be his “ultimate goal.”

“A college scholarship would be the best,” said Joe Morris.

“But doing the pommel horse at the Olympics would be amazing,” Dominic Morris confessed. He said that if he continues on course, competing in the pommel horse at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London could be a possibility, but likely a chance to compete in the all-around competition would come later. Unlike girls gymnastics, in which the top athletes are often in their early to late teens, the prime age for male gymnasts is later on, usually between ages 18 and 24, Joe Morris said. Another distinct difference from individual sports such as swimming or track and field, Dominic Morris said, is that today’s younger group of gymnasts is stepping up the stakes, widening the score gap from previous generations.

“It’s moving up really fast,” Dominic Morris said. The duo attributed this to new technology and equipment, as well as coaches.

“The Chinese and Russian coaches bring new techniques,” said Joe Morris. This international mingling also distinguishes real life experiences from those seen on television. Joe and Dominic Morris both said that unlike some sports, where the superstars are off doing their own thing, in gymnastics everyone hangs out together at competition.

“We see all the big stars at nationals,” Joe Morris said. “The kids get to see what they are doing. You rub elbows with everyone.”

For now, Dominic Morris is prepping to compete in Dallas. Who knows, maybe in another three years NBC will be spotlighting an athlete who grew up on Mercer Island as he preps for the world stage in London.

Morris will compete at the Visa Championships in Dallas, Aug. 12-15. NBC Sports will broadcast the event. Check local listings for dates and times.

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