By John Powers
It’s not as if the last Olympics happened a week ago. It’s just that virtually all of the same guys who suited up for the red, white and blue in London are in Hartford, Conn., for this weekend’s P&G Gymnastics Championships, looking for a ticket to Rio de Janeiro.
Only two-time Olympian Jonathan Horton is missing from the 2012 squad that included Danell Leyva, John Orozco, Jake Dalton and Sam Mikulak and the three alternates — Alex Naddour, Steven Legendre and Chris Brooks — are in the mix as well. And that’s not counting 2015 world team members Donnell Whittenburg, Paul Ruggeri and Brandon Wynn.
"I think it’s great that the guys are making it so difficult for us," national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika observed on Thursday after the candidates worked out on the podium at the XL Center before Friday night’s opening competition. "The quality of the depth is like we’ve never seen before."
Eleven of the 42 competitors have collected a dozen World medals and 42 U.S. Titles, and Leyva earned the Olympic all-around bronze medal last time. "Yeah, it was great that I won an Olympic medal, but at the same time, it wasn’t the color that I wanted," he says. "The goal since I’ve been 7 years old has always been to be an Olympic champion. That has never been altered and that’s why I’m still here."
For all of the London veterans, who placed fifth in the team event after going into the medal round in the lead, a dream deferred was a powerful lure to continue for another quadrennium. "It’s absolutely been a motivating factor," says Mazeika. "We were in great position there in London and had a tough go of it in the finals."
Earning a second chance at Olympus — or a first one — will take an extraordinary effort by the five men who’ll make the squad. Three of the contenders — three-time champion Mikulak, Leyva and Orozco — have won national all-around titles and Whittenburg was the top American at last year’s World meet. "If I can hit all six events, I definitely feel that I can fill in that top spot for sure," he says.
Only 18 of the athletes from this weekend’s championships will advance to the men’s Olympic Trials in St. Louis, June 23-26, where the results will be combined with the scores from the P&G Championships. The top two finishers in the all-around will receive automatic places provided that they’re also in the top three in half of the six events, with the other three athletes being chosen by committee.
"It’s a crazy process, and I’m glad I’m not part of the selection committee," says Dalton. "They’ll need to look at the scores and who meshes well as a team, just trying to select the best team possible."