By Jo-Ann Barnas, Special Contributor
RIO DE JANERIO – It wasn’t as if he needed to collect himself. Chris Brooks was in a good place already. Somewhere up in the crowd watching him compete in his first Olympic men’s all-around finals – at age 29 – was his mother and his brother. And in his heart was his inspiration, his late father and former coach, Larry Brooks.
That’s what Brooks was thinking about as he waited for his turn on the high bar, during a brief delay when he was seen bent over in front of the apparatus in a resting pose, his arms wrapped around a chalk bucket.
“I said, ‘Dad, this one’s for you, let’s go!’" Brooks recalled Thursday night as he concluded his Olympics with a 14th-place finish in the all-around final.
For certain, Brooks’ competition was much different than his teammate, Sam Mikulak, whom like Brooks hit all six of his routines for a seventh-place finish on a night that ended with a remarkable showdown for the gold medal, with Japan’s Kohei Uchimura overtaking Oleg Verniaiev on the last event – scoring a 15.800 to Verniaiev’s 14.800 on high bar — to repeat as Olympic champion.
The medal was Uchimura’s career seventh Olympic medal in three Summer Games, further solidifying his standing as the greatest men’s gymnast of all time. He finished with an all-around score of 92.365, while Verniaiev – who was 11th at the 2012 London Olympics – won silver with a 92.266,
Great Britain’s Max Whitlock earned the bronze medal (90.641).
“It was intense,” Brooks said of the battle between the gold and silver medalists. “I’m just glad I’m not a judge on high bar. It was a crazy tight score.”
Mikulak, who was 16th after three rotations before rallying, finished with a score of 89.631. Brooks, the U.S. team captain who was ranked 19th in last Saturday’s qualification, scored 87.632.
Entering the competition, Mikulak had hoped to contend for a medal but those hopes were dashed by scores that failed to reach the 15.00 mark until his splendid routine on parallel bars produced a score of 15.766.
The four-time U.S. champion seemed to have braced himself for post-event questions about his recent string of slow starts by the time he reached the media-mixed zone corral. Mikulak’s first three rotations – pommel horse, still rings and vault – produced scores of 14.600, 14.366 and 14.566.
“Sometimes you have perfect performances, sometimes you have little wobbles – nothing that’s out of the ordinary,” Mikulak said. “I just didn’t destroy it like I would have liked, the way everybody would have wanted to.”
“You can’t make excuses,” he said. “You have what you have, and you just have to make the most of it.”
But Mikulak did a Mikulak: He rallied. It began when he produced a great routine on parallel bars, and the score – 15.766 – confirmed it. He kept the momentum going on his next rotation, high bar, punching the air with his fist after sticking his layout double-double. Score: 15.133. Then came his sixth hit routine, this one the closing event for him, on floor exercise: 15.200.
“I hit six for six,” Mikulak said. “I think that was the biggest goal of mine coming out here. For a while, through P&Gs and trials, I never went six-for-six, but I came to the grandest of stages and did it here. I think I proved to myself and a lot of others that I’m still capable of hitting all my routines.”
Brooks, who said he knew his placement was going to drop after his last two events — which they did, after scoring 14.600 on floor exercise and 13.200 on pommel horse — said he’ll never forget seeing his name on the first page on the scoreboard in fifth place after four rotations.
“I was hitting routines, sticking to my game plan,” he said. “To see my name even on the scoreboard was an amazing honor. I knew I needed a little bit more of a cushion going into floor and horse, they’re not my highest scoring events, so I knew I was going to drop. But I was glad I could finish strong.”
After two events without a medal — the U.S. men were fifth in the team final on Monday night — competition continues this weekend with the start of three days of individual event finals.
On Sunday, Mikulak and Jake Dalton compete on floor exercise, while Alex Naddour will go on pommel horse. On Tuesday, Danell Leyva competes on parallel bars and high bar (along with Mikualk). No U.S. men’s gymnasts qualified for individual event finals on still rings or vault, both of which will be contested Monday.
Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, who won team gold Tuesday night with their Final Five teammates, will compete Thursday in the women’s all-around final, where Biles – three-time World all-around champ – is heavily favored to win her first individual gold of the Games. Raisman, meanwhile, will try for her fifth career Olympic medal, having also won three in London – two gold (team and floor exercise) and a bronze (beam).