Analyzing the U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team
The U.S. men’s Olympic gymnastics team was finalized on Saturday night with Sam Mikulak, Chris Brooks, Jake Dalton, Alex Naddour and John Orozco being named to the team. Danell Leyva, the 2011 world champ on parallel bars, and Donnell Whittenburg, a presumed shoe-in for the team, were left off the squad by a six-member selection committee. Here are five things we learned from the Olympic trials:
Age isn’t the most important number
Maybe 29 isn’t old in normal people years, but gymnasts aren’t normal in the ways they put their bodies through crunching landing, muscle strains and hand rips. Brooks could have called it quits years ago. He had been close to making several World and Olympic teams and was the Olympic alternate in 2012, but the disappointments and medical procedures added up. An arm, a shoulder, an elbow and a hand. What was left? “Spirit I guess,” Brooks said after finishing the night with the team’s second-highest all-around score, enough to impress the selection committee and put him on the team, even though he doesn’t have the traditional three strong events that the committee hopes for.
Then, in the dressing room, he heard his name. “I started crying a lot, and I don’t cry,” he said. “Ask my friends: I don’t cry. It came out a lot.” For head coach Kevin Mazeika, also a member of the selection committee that chose the five-member men’s team, Brooks’s consistency trumped his lack of a signature event that others may have had. “The numbers don’t lie,” he said. “He had 24 events over two competitions without a big miss. That speaks for itself.”
Dogs may have cost Leyva a spot on the Olympic team
Leyva seemed a good bet to make the Olympic team earlier this year. But in early May, one of his bulldogs bit the 2012 Olympian three times, leaving a large gash on his leg. As it was happening, Leyva was immediately thinking that his Olympic prospects were in jeopardy. “Oh, great. You’re going to do this to me now?” he recalled. Leyva put himself in position to get on the team by improving his pommel horse, an event on which the U.S. team is weak, and hitting his two strongest events—parallel bars and high bar. But in the end, the selection committee essentially chose Orozco to fill those roles in Rio. Mazeika said he the committee couldn’t give any weight to an injury that cost Leyva weeks of training and would likely improve over the next two months. “Once you’re on the field of play and they call your name—you’re on.” Mazeika said. “Everyone is injured at this time. Everyone has something.”
Don’t expect any Olympic all-around medals
Mikulak’s place on the Olympic team was never really in doubt. The U.S. national champ finished nearly five points ahead of the field in the combined all-around standings. But at the Olympic level, where difficulty and security are paramount, Mikulak will need to clean up his mistakes to compete for a medal, On Saturday, he fell on his second release move, a Kolman, on high bar and scraped his feet on a swing on parallel bars. He also had two big mistakes on Thursday, but had enough difficulty and execution in his routines to keep the lead he built at the U.S. Nationals in Hartford, which counted for 50 percent of the overall score on Saturday. “Yeah, I have some things to work on,” Mikulak said. “I lost a little concentration.” His place on the team was never in doubt. But the margin for error won’t be as great in Rio, and there is nobody else on the team in position to put up a six-apparatus challenge for the podium.
Orozco wasn’t done
Nobody really questioned Orozco’s ability. The three-time world medalist admitted to being “mentally lost” for much for the last year after the death of his mother Damaris, who had sacrificed to make his career possible and died on Valentine’s Day in 2015. “I thought about her every moment,” Orozco said on Saturday after making the team. “She pulled me through.” Orozco pulled himself up after a subpar performance at the nationals in Hartford and came to St. Louis as an outsider, with most assuming that Whittenburg and Leyva would fill out the team on events such as high bar and parallel bars. In fact, it was Orozco’s fight on pommel horse, the team’s weakest event, that may have earned him a berth on the team. Naddour, who earned a spot on the team, is the squad’s best on pommels, but Orozco managed to outscore both on the team’s Achilles event. That result carried the day. “In the end, John really performed,” said Mazeika. “His pommel horse routine was impressive. We noticed.”
It’s a puzzle
The coaches have said all year long that the Olympic team medal chase is more important than any individual ones. For Mazeika, that meant finding ways to piece together a five-man team with complementary strengths, since only three gymnasts will compete on each event in Rio. You don’t need five guys who are just okay, you need three good ones on each event. That may have made life easier for Naddour, the team’s best gymnast on its weakest event, pommel horse. “I was doing the math in my head,” Naddour said. “When I’m up on pommels, I’m thinking, I’ve got this.” By leaving Whittenburg off the team, Mazeika and his committee may have sacrificed some strength on rings and vault, where Whittenburg is strong. “That’s the part that gives you pause,” Mazeika said. “You know there are good and bad points and you just have to make sure you have a fit. It was ironic, then that Naddour’s improvement on rings—he scored over 15 in all four performances—may have hurt Whittenburg’s chances because the team was otherwise strong on rings. “We feel good on that event. We’ve gotten stronger.”