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Road to Tokyo

With his trademark goggles and pommel horse, Worcester’s Stephen Nedoroscik is one routine from an Olympic dream

Worcester's Stephen Nedoroscik won his first senior national title on the pommel horse on June 5, and will look to repeat that success at the US Gymnastics Trial to seal a spot for Tokyo.
Worcester's Stephen Nedoroscik won his first senior national title on the pommel horse on June 5, and will look to repeat that success at the US Gymnastics Trial to seal a spot for Tokyo.Jamie Squire/Getty

Intense focus has gotten Worcester’s Stephen Nedoroscik to the brink of an Olympic berth, which is fitting for a gymnast with unmistakable eyewear.

Unlike Nedoroscik’s competitors at this week’s US Olympic Trials for men’s gymnastics, he will only appear on one apparatus during the entire meet. While all-arounders compete at six apparatuses, Nedoroscik is a pommel horse specialist. The event that most male gymnasts despise is his calling card.

And every time he takes to the pommel horse, he wears his goggles, which most people think are a prescription. They are not, and their existence came from an unexpected place.

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“They were a Secret Santa gift from a teammate,” said Nedoroscik, who acquired the eyewear during his first year at Penn State, where he competed until 2020. “I wore them during a meet as a joke, and then I did well. We joked that they must have some magic in them, so I kept wearing them.”

At the trials in St. Louis, there will be fans in the stands wearing T-shirts printed with his goggles after a gymnastics website started selling them when Nedoroscik won the pommel horse title at the National Championships on June 5.

The victory was just one of many Nedoroscik has earned nationallysince he started focusing his training on pommels in high school. Hehas brought home two Junior Olympic and NCAA titles, as well as the Nissen-Emery Award , the collegiate gymnastics equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

His childhood coach, Bob Donahue of Sterling Academy of Gymnastics, led Nedoroscik to the unusual path of focusing on just one apparatus at the end of his sophomore year of high school.

“He was talented, but not progressing the way we thought he could, which was frustrating,” said Donahue. “But everyone could see how well he was doing on pommel horse. It’s so unusual of an event, and you can be very helpful to a college team if you’re good at it.”

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Nedoroscik bought into the idea of only focusing on pommels. His parents even bought a pommel horse for his backyard.

“He was that dedicated,” said Liz Gonzalez, another Sterling coach.

It immediately paid off. Nedoroscik won his first national Junior Olympic title that season.

His prowess led him to Penn State, where he competed for four years and earned a degree in electrical engineering. He still trains with his college coaches as he vies for an Olympic spot.

Nedoroscik is hoping to earn the fifth spot on the team — one that wasn’t available until June 5. The Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG), the sport’s international governing body, made a controversial decision to change team sizes for the Tokyo Olympics. Instead of the five-gymnast teams seen in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the team size was reduced to four. However, nations could earn an additional spot either via continental championships or World Cup events. With many World Cup events canceled due to the pandemic, the US had only one chance left to earn their extra spot: the 2021 Pan American Championships in Rio de Janiero, their continental championship.

However, another controversial change by the FIG gave Nedoroscik an opportunity to earn his own berth. Individuals could clinch spots separate from their nation’s team by competing at a series of World Cup events. After the series conclusion, the most successful gymnast on an apparatus would earn a spot in Tokyo.

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In early 2020, Nedoroscik attempted to earn an Olympic spot that way. He won the pommel horse title at the Melbourne World Cup in February and needed two more victories to win the spot outright. He traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan in mid-March for his second World Cup event. Training was going well, and his confidence was high.

Then he got a startling wake-up from one of his Penn State coaches, who traveled with him to the meet.

“My coach knocked on my door at 5 a.m., and said, ‘We just got notice that we have to leave immediately because of the pandemic,’” said Nedoroscik.

Reluctantly, Nedoroscik withdrew, and eventually, the event was called off.

With other World Cup events canceled and the Olympics postponed, Nedoroscik’s opportunity to earn his own spot in Tokyo vanished. His only hope was that fifth team spot, which USA Gymnastics officials said would go to a specialist with a good possibility of finishing on the podium.

As a team of American gymnasts fought for the spot at the Pan Ams, Nedoroscik was at the US Championships, waiting to see if there would be an Olympic spot for him to contend for.

“It was such a mood changer,” said Nedoroscik. “Before, I wasn’t sure if my competing would even be worth it if we didn’t get that extra spot.”

With that boost, Nedoroscik went on to win the pommel title and advanced to the trials with several other specialists. His childhood coaches think that out of that group, he has the best chance of them all to stand on the Olympic podium.

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“The others don’t compare as highly internationally on their event as Stephen does,” said Donahue.

If Nedoroscik doesn’t make the Olympic team, he will continue to try for the World Championships team this fall. But he’s hoping that if he can improve on his winning routines from the US Championships two weeks ago, the focus he’s had for the last seven years will pay off with an Olympic spot.

“I have a pretty simple goal: I want to do what I’ve been doing in training,” said Nedoroscik. “I want to show everyone that I’m clean and consistent.”