Sam Mikulak leads veteran U.S. Olympic team; Danell Leyva misses out
ST. LOUIS — Jonathan Horton texted Chris Brooks and Alex Naddour a picture before both rounds of the U.S. men’s gymnastics Olympic Trials this week. The image was from London four years ago. In it, Brooks and Naddour were cheering from the stands in the O2 Arena as alternates while their teammates stumbled to a fifth-place finish.
Horton attached a short note too, giving Naddour and Brooks a reminder of what was at stake.
“He was like, ‘Make this not happen,’” Brooks said with a laugh.
It didn’t. Finally.
Surging at a time when he so often stumbled, the 29-year-old Brooks secured a long-awaited Olympic berth on Saturday night. His second-place finish in the all-around behind four-time national champion Sam Mikulak was good enough to erase any lingering doubt about his maturity and his ability to perform in the clutch.
“Old guys still got it,” Brooks said.
There will be plenty of them in Rio de Janeiro in August. Each of the five members giddily celebrating in a sea of balloons — Brooks, Naddour, Mikulak, Jake Dalton and John Orozco — have either competed in the Olympics or multiple world championships (or both). Each have their own individual strengths.
And perhaps most importantly for a program that’s in some ways been eclipsed on the international stage by upstart Great Britain behind longtime powers China and Japan, each seized their spot by not shying away from the moment.
“There was no, hardly any hiccups along the way,” said national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika. “It was great to see.”
Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva and Donnell Whittenburg, the only two U.S. men to earn a medal at the 2015 World Championships, were left off the Olympic team.
While Mikulak entered the final day assured of a second Olympic berth, he was the only lock. Behind him was a jumble of a 6-8 contenders vying for one of the remaining four positions. Mazeika admitted in some ways the selection committee was “splitting hairs” while trying to piece together a group that could thrive in the three-up, three-count format during Olympic team finals.
Ultimately they let the math do the talking. And when each committee member jotted down their final ballot during a brief 12-minute meeting at the end of the competition, they were identical.
“In reality, when the scenarios came in and the same team was on all of them, it was relatively easy at that point,” Mazeika said.
Emotional, too. Brooks has spent the better part of a decade on the fringe, stung by injuries or inconsistency. Yet he went 24 for 24 through four rounds of qualifying, including a muscular save on parallel bars Saturday night when he nearly over-rotated his way to the mat. Nearly.
In his head during those frantic five seconds as he fought to hold on, Brooks’ mind was racing.
“There’s no way I’m coming off these bars,” Brooks said. “‘You’re going to have to break my arms to get me off these bars.”
There was no need. He recovered and put up a 15.175, and his four-round total on parallel bars was tops in the field. When Brooks drilled his high bar set a few minutes later, he let out a guttural scream as the weight of unmet expectations seemed to vanish in front of him following what he called “the best routine of my life.”
Brooks is hardly the only American who took a winding path to Rio. Orozco was one of the team’s bright young stars in 2012. Yet London was a nightmare. He flew off pommel horse during the team and all-around finals and the last four years has been a mix of injury and personal setbacks. He tore ligaments in his knee in 2012 and his Achilles for a second time last summer just months following the passing of his mother.
Orozco will be a specialist this time around, focusing on high bar, parallel bars and maybe pommel horse. The disappointment of 2012 lingers, but so does the sense of redemption.
“The majority of us are veterans,” Orozco said. “The pressure was there to help push us and that’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Though the committee combined the scores of nationals earlier this month and trials to try and get a big-picture view, the truth is the last month just marked the final steps in a lengthy process of elimination. The men’s team has largely been static at the top since London, with Mikulak ripping off four straight national titles and the core group remaining intact during a run that included a team bronze at the 2014 worlds but also a missed podium at 2015 world championships last fall, a meet Mikulak and Dalton both missed due to injury.
The U.S. will head to Rio at full strength, and with something resembling momentum. Outside of Mikulak’s typical early meet flub — he slipped off high bar during the first rotation — glaring mistakes were few and far between.
Dalton, who maintained he could have competed in worlds despite a shoulder injury but instead was left off and underwent surgery instead, overcome a so-so performance in nationals. Naddour, who became a father earlier this year, has long been the best American on pommel horse but has added solid skills elsewhere in hopes of making him more attractive to the committee. Naddour’s improvement on vault probably helped open the door for Brooks.
Eight years ago he didn’t make it to Olympic trials. Four years ago he just missed the cut and served as in essence the lead cheerleader. Not this time. This time, he’ll walk in with the rest of Team USA. This time, he’ll be on the floor. This time, he’s going for real.
“I flashbacks of being an 8-year-old kid in the gym, all my coaches along the way, all my friends and family that sacrificed for me,” Brooks said. “It’s all now worth it.”