U.S. men hope to narrow gap on pommel horse discipline

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(AP) -- There's nothing fun about the pommel horse. Nothing.

The event that's bedeviled American gymnasts at the Olympics for nearly three decades lacks the high bar's flashy releases, the vault's blink-and-you'll-miss-it explosiveness, the still rings' vein-popping muscularity, the floor's pulse-pounding tumbling runs and the precision of the parallel bars.

Instead, it is a 45-second fight on a chalky, 14-inch wide bench 4 feet off the ground, a strength-sapping struggle between the lactic acid in your arms and the pull of the earth's gravity. And it is arguably the biggest obstacle between the US men's team and realistic shot at a gold medal at this summer's London Olympics.

So, of course, pommel horse is the first event the Americans face when team qualifying begins on July 28 at The O2 Arena.

"I saw (the qualifying times) and I just kind of groaned," Danell Leyva said. "It's like, 'Let's get the bad event out of the way first and get to the good stuff.'"

It's not that Leyva hates the event. When done well - YouTube two-time world champion Krisztian Berki of Hungary for proof - pommel horse can look like an inverted ballet, with your hands taking the place of your feet as you swing, walk and rotate along the five-foot long apparatus.

It's just that countless hours in the gym have done little to end a dry spell that dates back to Peter Vidmar's gold medal in Los Angeles in 1984, well before any current U.S. Olympic hopeful was even born.

The men insist they spend as much time on pommel horse as the other five disciplines, and are well aware the difference between standing atop the podium and watching the team medal ceremony on TV could depend on how they handle themselves in their weakest event.

There have been signs of progress. The U.S. men won pommel horse at last summer's Japan Cup, which featured all of the Olympic contenders except Germany. At the world championships in October, they posted the second-highest score in the team final on their way to the bronze medal, their first at worlds since 2003.

Then 2012 started, and the American's top gymnasts - Leyva and John Orozco - found themselves slipping and sliding all over the place.

Leyva won the all-around at the American Cup in New York on March 3, but was third on pommel horse with a score of 14.433. Orozco was even worse, hopping off at one point while posting a score of 13.700. By comparison, the lowest qualifying score for the event finals at the worlds was 15.266.

And these are perhaps the two best the Americans will have to offer in the event in London.

Everyone has a theory on why the U.S. struggles while the Japanese, Chinese and a handful of European countries thrive.

Men's national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika places part of the blame on the way the Americans are built. Their upper bodies are so big - cover Orozco's face and it would be easy to confuse him for an NFL linebacker - it can be hard to look fluid.

"It's a balancing act," Mazeika said.

One which the Americans have a hard time maintaining, and one that can't be solved by simply refining training techniques.

"Which kind of athletes survive in this sport? It's the stronger ones and the most explosive ones," said Justin Spring, a member of the bronze-medal team at the Beijing Olympics and now the coach at the University of Illinois. "Those attributes tend to make it hard to swing pommel horse."

Vidmar, now the chairman of USA Gymnastics, shakes his head while watching the routines of even the most average elite gymnast. The event has evolved almost to the point where he doesn't recognize it anymore.

"Their routines are just so over-the-top," he said. "They're doing things I could never do."

Yet Vidmar has gold. The ensuing generations have an albatross.

While allowing for the physics issues a ripped torso presents while trying to "breakdance four feet off the ground" as Vidmar describes the event, he wonders if the issue is as much mental as physical.

It's simple, really.

"Do you want to ride a roller coaster or the merry-go-around?" Vidmar said.

Why focus on the pommel horse, with its series of handstands, swinging scissor kicks and one-handed dismounts when you can soar two stories off the ground while flipping over the high bar, or cram 2 1/2 twists and a flip or two into the blink of an eye after exploding off the vault?

"Those other events, it's all about going faster, going higher," said Tom Meadows, who coaches two-time Olympic medalist Jon Horton and U.S. hopeful Chris Brooks. "That's just the mindset. It's not like that on the horse."

The horse is elegant and excruciating, an exercise in kinetic energy and imagination. In some ways it is the antithesis of the other five disciplines, all of which include give-and-take with gravity that acknowledges what goes up must come down.

Only on the horse, what goes up does not come down. Not until the end. Not until the adrenaline surge that propelled you through the first half of the routine is gone and your arms are on fire.

It happened to Vidmar in Los Angeles. Knowing he had to score a perfect 10 to share gold with China's Li Ning, Vidmar felt the burn early but resisted the temptation to dial down the difficulty. His toughness was rewarded with Olympic glory. He didn't think 28 years later he'd be the last American to earn an individual medal of any color in the event at the Olympics.

Yet Vidmar remains upbeat for the future, and Mazeika points to the development at the junior level as evidence that a renewed focus on erasing any bad habits at an early age is working. Akash Modi and Marvin Kimble, both 16, finished third and fourth in the event at the Pacific Rim championships in March.

All of which is good news for down the road, but will be of little help in London, leaving it up to Leyva, Orozco and Co. with a little over three months to iron out the wrinkles.

And there are plenty of wrinkles.

Horton, who won two medals in Beijing four years ago but is recovering from a left foot injury sustained at worlds, spent more than two months over the winter relentlessly attacking an event that has frustrated him throughout his career. He even upped his start value, the difficulty level of a routine. Horton debuted the new routine at Winter Cup in Las Vegas in February, slipped off once and posted a 12.250.

There is time to get it together, but there is little margin for error - though in a way the new rules that trim rosters from six competitors per country to five may help the Americans. With six events to cover, the loss of even one gymnast makes the event specialist or two teams once carried an unaffordable luxury.

The Americans don't need to be the best in the world at pommel horse to win gold. Narrowing the gap would be enough. That means three more months of mind-numbing, muscle-aching, gravity-defying training.

"It's never going to be my favorite, but we know how important it is," Leyva said. "We know what we're up against. We just have to go do it."