Sam Mikulak works on the high bar during a training session Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, in preparation for the U.S. men's gymnastics championships in Anaheim, Calif. (Paul Rodriguez/The Orange County Register via AP)
AP Photo
August 17, 2017

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) The sprawling sleeve of tattoos running down Alex Naddour's left arm is unmissable. The American flag on the shoulder. The Olympic rings running down the inside of his forearm. They serve as a testament to the Olympic bronze medalist's passion and his longevity.

Oh and if they happen to send a message to the sea of new faces the national team captain finds himself surrounded by these days, all the better.

At 26, Naddour admits he's ''kind of the old guy,'' and he's not wrong. The core of the 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams are hurt, retired or both. Jon Horton. Jake Dalton. Danell Leyva. John Orozco. Chris Brooks. Steven Legendre. All have moved on. Four-time national champion Sam Mikulak is recovering from his second major Achilles injury. Donnell Whittenburg is searching to regain the form that made him an all-around finalist at the 2015 world championships.

Naddour isn't exactly healthy either just six months removed from an arm issue he suffered at a meet in February that will limit him to just pommel horse and rings when 2017 nationals begin on Thursday night.

That's fine. Naddour still has time. He's well aware that he's a bridge of sorts between the old generation and the next one.

''I want these guys to feel what we felt (when we came up),'' Naddour said. ''We looked up to those guys (before us) and hopefully these guys look up to me because I'm team captain. Hopefully they take what I have to say seriously and take my experience seriously to help them get ready for what they need to get ready for.''

Namely, returning the U.S. to international prominence. While the women's program has become a podium-hogging machine over the last decade, the men have struggled with inconsistency. They finished fifth in the team finals in both 2012 and 2016. Though there have been flashes of individual success - like Leyva's bronze in the all-around in London and Naddour's bronze on pommel horse in Rio de Janeiro - the Americans have been on a treadmill, one that cost national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika his job last fall.

Enter Brett McClure. The former Cal coach was appointed the ''high performance director'' in February and charged with providing a needed jolt. Consider the message received.

''He's the type of person that's not going to beat around the bush,'' Whittenburg said. ''If something is bothering him, he's going to let you know straight up. If there's a problem, how do we fix it? I feel like the last couple (quadrennials) I felt we were missing that stern leadership. Sometimes you can't be the nice guy all the time.''

The men have borrowed a page from former women's national team coordinator Martha Karolyi's playbook. Training camps are now treated more like competitions, with members of the national team and world championship teams flown in to watch. The goal is creating a more competitive environment.

''You're saluting and it's like you're at championships, so you have to do your best,'' Naddour said. ''It's going to help the national team grow a lot quicker and adjust in those pressure situations.''

Good, because they're coming. Even if Naddour, Mikulak and Whittenburg all make the world championship roster when it's released late Saturday night, it leaves three spots for newcomers. No pressure or anything.

Yul Moldauer captured the American Cup in March, beating a field that included Olympic silver medalist Oleg Verniaiev. Akash Modi served as an alternate on the 2016 Olympic team and won the NCAA all-around title for Stanford this spring. Allan Bower and Eddie Penev are also in the mix.

The lights will come on. It's time to get a gauge on how the strategic plan put in place after an underwhelming team performance in the Olympics is working.

''If the whole world watches this competition and is like, `we've got them,' then boo us,'' said Mikulak, who will compete on pommel horse and high bar. ''The world doesn't know what's going on with USA Gymnastics until we show ourselves in this competition. I hope everyone competing has a good performance to show the world that we're not as weak as we look to them.''

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