Jonathan Horton will celebrate his national-title performance for a bit.

Then, he'll start picking it apart.

"I'm always trying to one-up myself," he said.

The gymnast who always wanted to be "The Man" for the U.S. team finally made it a reality Friday night by winning a national title, taking it in a runaway over Tim McNeill and Wes Haagensen.

Horton finished with 181.9 points, 3.4 better than McNeill and 3.9 ahead of Haagensen.

Defending national champion David Sender, who led most of the first night, had a rough second day and finished 10th.

Horton's victory wasn't a big surprise.

He has an Olympic silver medal on high bar and a fourth-place finish in the all-around at 2007 worlds already on his resume. But he wanted a national championship, too, and anyone who thinks nationals in the year after an Olympics don't mean much hasn't checked in with Horton lately.

He has finished second twice over the last three years.

"That just makes you want to get back in the gym and work harder," he said.

The work won't stop simply because he won this one, though.

He didn't give himself good grades for most of this meet, in large part because he has only jumped back into serious, everyday training over the last three weeks, after a year that included graduating from Oklahoma, getting married to another Sooner gymnast, Haley DeProspero, and moving from Norman to Houston.

"I'm ecstatic with what I did," Horton said. "But I've got a long way to go if I want to keep up with the rest of the world and I know that."

He knows all about these uphill climbs.

He was on the team that finished 13th at worlds in 2006, then part of the rebuilding project that helped the United States to a bronze medal in Beijing two years later. Now that Paul and Morgan Hamm are gone for good, Horton knows he's under the microscope as the road to London in 2012 begins.

He didn't disappoint over two solid days in Dallas.

The highlight of his night came, as usual, on the high bar, where he strung together three solid release moves and caught the bar cleanly each time.

This wasn't the amped-up routine he put together in only three days to win the Olympic silver in Beijing _ a rare retooling that showed how much winning really meant to him _ but most of that routine figures to come back by the time world championships roll around in October.

For this week, solid and simple was more than enough. Good enough, in fact, that he didn't even have to sweat his evening-closing pommel horse routine. It's his weakest event, but he had nearly a 5-point lead by then, meaning he could have fallen off two or three times and still won the meet. (He did fall once, and scored only 12.15.)

Horton's path was made easier thanks to the collapse of Sender, who led this meet through the first five events of qualifying Wednesday night. It had the makings of a fantastic story for the defending champion, who is heading off to vet school this weekend and wouldn't have taken a spot on the world team if it had been offered to him.

Not a worry now, not after slipping off parallel bars on his mount, falling off the high bar and landing on his backside during floor exercise _ a painful string of mistakes that dropped him out of the running before the evening was half over.

"I walked in here and looked around and had the sudden realization that this is the last time I'm doing this," Sender said. "I was hoping that might raise the adrenaline and get me through it, but it sort of skewed the other way."

That made room for some new contenders, like McNeill, a three-time All-American at Cal, who is filling out his all-around resume to go with his strength on the pommel horse, which was already earning him attention because that's traditionally America's weakest event.

"After having the all-around go so well for me, hopefully people's views of me will change," he said.

And fifth-place finisher Danell Leyva, a 17-year-old who does some big gymnastics, but still doesn't draw as much attention as his Cuban-born coach and step-dad, Yin Alvarez, whose leaping, screaming, post-routine celebrations make Bela Karolyi look like an introvert.

"I'm happy but I'm not completely satisfied," Leyva said. "I guess I won't be completely satisfied until I'm in the Olympics."

Horton has been there once, hopes to be there again and doesn't mind being thought of as "The Man" who might lead America to yet another Olympic medal.

"I enjoy that people are looking at me as the leader of the team," he said. "I've wanted that role my whole career."

ROPES AND MATS: Sender was selected to the men's national team based on his 10th-place finish, which means he's entitled to some funding and support. He'll have to resign his position if he sticks with his plan to sit out the rest of the year. ... The men's coaches will select the gymnasts going to worlds Sunday, with Sasha Artemev, who missed this meet because of an injury, in the mix.