Not to be outdone by their more celebrated female teammates, the U.S. men's gymnastics team got off to a superb start on Saturday, qualifying first for Monday's team final and sending Danell Leyva and John Orozco into the all-around competition later in the week. Leyva qualified first among individuals with a combined 91.265 points. Orozco, the top scorer at the U.S. Trials last month, was fourth with 90.597. Four U.S. gymnasts qualified for finals on individual apparatuses: Jake Dalton on floor, Sam Mikulak on vault and Leyva and Jonathan Horton on horizontal bar.
Japan, the reigning world team champion, ducked into fifth place with a lackluster day. Russia was second. Host Great Britain was third.
Still, despite the impressive numbers, the opening day of competition, which was full of errors and nerves, marked a day of imperfections for the U.S. team.
"We can do better," Orozco said after the U.S. team competed in the afternoon session. "Honestly we can do a lot better and we'll have to if we want a medal."
This is the new reality for USA gymnastics, which took third as a team at the 2011 worlds and should come away with its share of medals during the week. Expectations are higher than ever.
"We're here to get something," said Leyva, who scored 15 or better on floor, vault, parallel bars and high bar. "We said we'd be pretty disappointed if we didn't get on that podium."
It didn't look good at the outset. The U.S. men drew the pommel horse as their first apparatus on Saturday. It has been the team's worst event for several years, and the squad had some expected jitters. Granted, the team is young -- Leyva is 20 and Mikulak and Orozco are 19 -- but it was Jonathan Horton, the team's only returning Olympian, who first sputtered to a 12.700 after a fall and clunky dismount. The team righted itself with a predictably strong showing on vault. Orozco (15.800), Dalton (15.900) and Mikulak (16.300) each stuck vaults, allowing the team to throw out Leyva's low score of 15.500. By sticking a handspring double front on an optional second vault that counted only for event-final qualification, Mikulak earned himself a shot at a medal in the individual apparatus final on Aug. 6.
Horton later fell off parallel bars, but came back to nail a solid set on the high bar with four release skills. Horton scored 15.566 on the apparatus, setting up Leyva's 15.866. Both gymnasts qualified for the event final.
"That's Jonathan Horton," said men's head coach Kevin Mazeika. "He had a rough go on pommel horse and parallel bars, but he stepped up when his team needed it."
At 26, Horton is the team captain with a pair of medals from Beijing and 21 medals at U.S. national championships.
"I went out real aggressive on high bar," he said. "I caught all my releases. One fingertip on the last one, but it was OK. I wanted to just do something to help the team. The guys are so strong, and for me as the old guy, I can't really go up there and keep missing."
Old? Who are you calling old? It isn't as though Horton is walking around with silver hair. That distinction belongs to Jordan Jovtchev, the 39-year-old Bulgarian competing in his record sixth Olympics. Jovtchev won his first world medal on still rings in 1995. Here at the London Games, 17 years later, Jovtchev and his noticeably silver hair qualified for events finals on rings with a score of 15.308. Jovtchev is a sort of folk hero in the sport. He lived and trained in the States for a number of years before moving back home and being elected head of the Bulgarian Gymnastics Federation in 2009. He has four Olympic medals, but no golds, on his resume. If he and Oksana Chusovitina, the 37-year-old German vault specialist, should get medals here, they could jump into an alumni event in between sessions.
Scores don't carry over from the qualification round into any of the medal rounds, so the team and individual leaders gain no advantage. This gives Japan and its best gymnast, Kohei Uchimura, a chance to take a mulligan and come back stronger in team and all-around events. Uchimura became a strong favorite to win the Olympic all-around competition when he dominated the event at the world championships last fall in capturing his third straight individual title. But on Saturday, he got off to a poor start, falling off the horizontal bar and pommel horse.
"That was weird," Orozco said of Uchimura's poor showing. "I thought that was really uncharacteristic of him."
Leyva said he expected the world champ to bounce back.
"The finish is going to be a lot more fun," he said. "You know he's going to come out with that much more fight."
For now, the U.S. men have beaten everyone to the first punch.