Emotional night culminates with naming of 2016 U.S. men’s Olympic team
posted on 06/25/2016

© John Cheng

Update 7/15/16: John Orozco suffered a knee injury during training and has withdrawn from the team. He is replaced by Danell Leyva.

By Nick McCarvel

ST. LOUIS – And then there were five.

Sam Mikulak, Jake Dalton, John Orozco, Alex Naddour and Chris Brooks were named to the U.S. Olympic team for men’s gymnastics Saturday at the Olympic Trials inside Chaifetz Arena, having been selected by a committee appointed by USA Gymnastics.

It’s a second Olympic team for Mikulak, Dalton and Orozco, who had been a part of the 2012 team that placed fifth at the London Olympics.

And it’s a moment of great personal achievement for Brooks, 29, and Naddour, 25, who were both replacement athletes for the 2012 team. The three replacement athletes for Rio will be named Sunday morning in St. Louis.

The naming of the team capped what had been an emotional and dramatic Olympic qualifying process for the men’s team. Tears flowed openly for some of the five as they greeted Chaifetz Arena, while almost certainly some were shed backstage for the athletes who were not put on the team.

“This was a lifetime of hard work,” said an emotional Naddour, who didn’t try to fight back his tears in the mixed zone, describing the work and sacrifices of his family. “I tried to put it all out there, and that’s what I did. I’m so happy.”

It was an 11th hour affair in St. Louis to figure out who got the green light for the road to Rio in what was one of the most competitive men’s field in recent history. 2012 Olympian Danell Leyva missed the cut, having finished 10th in the combined standings from the Olympic qualifying events, which included the P&G Gymnastics Championships earlier this month and trials this weekend.

Donnell Whittenburg, who finished fourth in qualifying, did not make the team, nor did Paul Ruggeri, his 2015 World Championships teammate.

“This was a culmination of so many years of work for these young men,” said men’s national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika. “They poured their hearts out and put it all on the floor. We only got to pick five of them. It’s heartbreaking that not all of them get to go to Rio. We saw a fantastic display of gymnastics tonight.”

Mikulak, fresh off his fourth consecutive national title in Hartford, was again the leader of the U.S. men’s team on Saturday night, recovering from an early fall on the high bar to score a 90.600, the top of the evening.

Brooks, however, was close behind, as he has been all four nights of must-hit competition this month for the U.S. men. His 89.050 put him fifth for Saturday, but secured him second place to Mikulak in the Olympic qualifying standings, 362.750 to 358.075.

Four years after he was named as an alternate and after a career full of just-misses, Brooks, who turns 30 in December, didn’t believe he was on the team until he heard his name announced by the selection committee.

“I flashed back to being an eight-year-old kid in the gym,” said Brooks about finding out. “Everything became worth it in that moment.”

“He has so often been overlooked time and time again,” Tim Daggett said of Brooks on the NBC broadcast. “He just put it out there tonight.”

The emotional heartstrings being pulled in mixed zone after the team was named were aplenty: There was Naddour, openly crying when discussing his months-old daughter Lilah; Brooks, the perennial underdog swarmed by feel-good-story questions; Dalton and Mikulak, grinning ear to ear; and Orozco, who many saw as an underdog heading into this competition, wiping tears from his face after telling NBC he knew his mother – who passed away last year – was watching over him.

“I know my mom is with me here in spirit,” he said in the mixed zone. “I’m glad to be a part of this team. I can’t wait to get back in the gym and start working towards the Olympics again.”

Orozco was in workhorse mode from start to finish on Saturday night, setting the tone with a big high bar routine before sitting out the floor exercise. After hitting a 14.825 on pommel horse, his next event, he thrust his fists in his air in celebration. He closed the night with a 15.450 on parallel bars, bringing his hands to his face, overcome with emotion.

“I had to make every event count,” he said. “It’s been nerve-wracking and intense” the last few weeks.

It was nerve-wracking and intense for all those competing, including collegian athletes Yul Moldauer, Akash Modi and Sean Melton. Moldauer and Modi finish fifth and sixth, respectively, in the two Olympic qualifying events.

The three of them, along with Whittenberg, Ruggeri and Leyva are contenders for the replacement spots, as are Steven Legendre, C.J. Maestas, Marvin Kimble, Donothan Bailey and Eddie Penev.

“The depth is so great that it was very close,” said Mazeika. “We were looking at a lot of different scenarios, but we were looking for the group that is going to produce the top team score, which is what proved out. We prioritize the team medal, but we also feel like we have very strong individual medal chances, too.”

Nastia Liukin came to the mixed zone after the team was announced to offer her congratulations, as did two-time Olympian Jonathan Horton, who is close friends with Brooks, the two hugging at one point.

Dalton showed his consistent self once again Saturday, starting his night on vault, but then gaining momentum on parallel bars and high bar, where he stuck his landing to roaring applause and thwacked the air with his fist, happy with what would be awarded a 14.925.

He was the lone trainee from the University of Oklahoma (alongside Legendre, Moldauer and Kanji Oyama) to be named to the Olympic team.

“It’s a tough training program with Mark Williams,” Dalton said. “I couldn’t ask for a better place to train or teammates. This isn’t just me out here, it’s my coach, family and friends. It’s paid off, but there is still more work to be done.”

That work? A team medal at the Rio Olympics. We now know who will be set off to achieve such a goal.