LONDON – Jonathan Horton, the old man of the U.S. men's gymnastics team at age 26, imparted some wisdom about Olympic qualification to his talented but inexperienced teammates: Medals can't be won by qualifying first.
"I asked if we could pick up the medals now," joked Horton, USA's lone Beijing Games veteran, after the Americans surprisingly posted the highest qualifying score on Saturday to raise expectations for Monday's team final.
After poor showings in the first three rounds of Monday's final at North Greenwich Arena, Horton had another lesson for the kids: Keep fighting.
Even when you're dead last in the standings.
A disastrous showing on the pommel horse, the U.S.'s worst discipline, ended any hopes for gold – or any medal, for that matter – and dumped the Americans in eighth place of eight teams. There was no catching the Chinese, the runaway winners, so going into the final round, with his teammates' shoulders slumped, Horton decided to huddle up the squad for a pep talk.
[ Photos: U.S. men's gymnastics team falters ]
"I just told the guys, 'Fight to the end,' " Horton recalled. "This is what Team USA is all about. We do not give up."
Horton led by example, helping the U.S. finish strong on its last rotation, the horizontal bar. His clean routine scored a 15.200 in between all-around finalists John Orozco (15.333) and Danell Leyva (15.866) to bring the vocal U.S. fans out of their seats.
It wasn't enough to move into the medals – Japan took the silver, Great Britain the bronze after a protest – but the Americans did manage to finish fifth, a result that would've been disappointing to them going into the final. But after such a disastrous start, they all walked away feeling like a better team having overcome such adversity on gymnastics' biggest stage. And they all considered the experience another building block for a group that, except for Horton, should comprise most of the U.S. team for the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil.
"You just get caught up in the moment and you can't perform your best," Horton explained. "But this group is going to learn from it. This group is going to be around awhile and will be back for Rio."
"This is motivation," said Sam Mikulak, who kept the U.S.'s spirits up by punctuating his dismounts with fist pumps. "And this is not just for the event finals. This is for the next four years."
[ Related: Japanese protest yanks medal from Ukraine's hands ]
The Americans can apply these vital lessons this week when individual competition begins, especially Leyva and Orozco who will compete in the men's all-around on Wednesday.
"It's over now," sighed Orozco, whose uncharacteristic stumble on his vault dismount led to a disastrous score of 12.733. "All I can do now is look to the future."
"We're all 19 years old," Mikulak said. "We're not the like the Italians who all look like they're 20-something years old. But we're here for the long haul. … Maybe we needed this."
More Olympics coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Blame the sport, not the 'dumb' rule, for Jordyn Wieber's early exit
• Olympic flame extinguished, relocated within stadium by Games organizers
• Swiss soccer player kicked off Olympic team for discriminatory tweet