By John Powers
Everyone predicted that the road to Rio would be congested for the U.S. men's gymnasts, that at least a dozen of them would be in the mix for the Games. So it was no surprise after Friday's opening night at the P&G Gymnastics Championships in Hartford, Conn., that the top six contenders were separated by only three quarters of a point.
"This is such a great squad," observed Sam Mikulak, the three-time champion who is five hundredths behind leader Donnell Whittenburg (89.900) going into Sunday afternoon's finale at the XL Center. "Every guy on the national team is putting up big scores. Everyone's really confident and consistent."
Only five men will be named to the Olympic team after the St. Louis trials in three weeks and while four veterans from the 2012 team and all three alternates are back, they're facing a stiff challenge to collect a return ticket. John Orozco, who re-tore an Achilles tendon last year, is in 11th place, just ahead of London all-around medalist Danell Leyva.
Leyva fell off the high bar and finished 37th on rings. Orozco, who said that he ate less than he should have earlier in the day, cramped up on his horse opener and had to rally on parallel bars and high bar. "I need to make up some ground on a few events," he said. "But overall I can't be too upset at myself because we have a whole other day."
Just behind Whittenburg and Mikulak is World teamer Chris Brooks (89.500), returning Olympian Jake Dalton (89.400) and Yul Moldauer (89.250), who's coming off his freshman year at Oklahoma. "It was exciting," said the 19-year-old Moldauer, who was setting his sights on the 2020 Games. "I think that shows that if you hit well and you don't fall, you can stay with the big guys. It was really cool to see and it's motivation for myself that hey, maybe I should go for this Olympics."
It was a night for the next generation to flex its muscles. Just behind Moldauer were fellow collegians Akash Modi of Stanford (89.150) and Sean Melton of Ohio State (88.900). If they can maintain their positions they'll earn advancement to the trials, where the top two all-arounders will collect Olympic berths if they're also among the top three in three events.
Coming into the weekend, the two favorites were Whittenburg, the top American all-arounder at last year's global meet, and Mikulak, an Olympic veteran who missed those championships with Achilles and ankle injuries.
Mikulak had the lead going into Friday's final rotation after winning on high bar (15.700) and placing second on parallel bars (15.450) and third on pommel horse (15.050). But a couple of early bobbles and a big step out of bounds on his final tumbling pass on floor exercise dropped him to 36th on the event.
"It's not how you want to end the first day but I was fine," said Mikulak. "I've got another day to show how good I can actually do that set."
Whittenburg, who started conservatively on horse, nailed the still rings with a 15.950 and placed fifth on vault (15.200), high bar (15.050) and floor (15.050) to end the night on top. "I just wanted to go out and hit sets today," he said, "and that's what I did so it was great."
Dalton, who missed last year's nationals with a shoulder injury, made an assertive return, winning on floor (15.400) and placing third on rings and vault. "Some people get these images or mindsets that if you're injured, you're not the same gymnast," he said. "I just want to prove that it's still me out there doing the same thing and I want them to have the confidence in me that I do."