By Jo-Ann Barnas, Special contributor
RIO DE JANEIRO – Now this looks slightly familiar, doesn’t it?
The U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team finished near the top of the class Saturday in team qualifying at the Rio Olympic Arena. But this time, they’re determined to embrace a much different ending in Monday’s team final than they did four years ago in London, when they took fifth after leading the preliminaries.
“This is only the start,” two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak said. “We all have a good feeling.”
For sure, Saturday’s performance was a solid-enough beginning. In fact, save for back-to-back falls on pommel horse by 29-year-old team captain Chris Brooks and Mikulak, the U.S. men’s team could have marched out of the arena with a bit of a swagger.
“We just needed one more pommel horse routine, and I would have said it was a great day,” said Mark Williams, U.S. Olympic team coach. “Coming out of this having two mistakes, that means we can get better.”
Truth be told, though, they seem to relish this position better – leaving the Rio Olympic Arena feeling good, but not great. Yes, they finished second behind China in the team qualification rankings 270.461 to 270.405, more than a point ahead of World champion Japan (269.294) and Great Britain (268.670). And there was also the good feeling of seeing both Mikulak (89.041) and Brooks (86.331) both qualify for Wednesday’s individual all-around competition. But this U.S. men’s team is all about building momentum and striving for perfection – especially when the lights will be at their biggest and brightest Monday.
“We’re not going to be complacent this time,” said Mikulak, who also qualified for the individual event finals in floor exercise and high bar. “We’re going to make sure we come in with a chip on our shoulder. We still have done nothing but qualify, and that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter if we’re first, second, third or fourth today. It’s making sure we come out hungrier than ever in team finals.
“We want to prove ourselves differently than we did in 2012.”
In addition to Mikulak, Dalton qualified for event finals in floor exercise, while Alex Naddour made it on pommel horse and Danell Leyva advanced on parallel bars and high bar.
Competing in the second subdivision, the U.S. delivered its strongest set on parallel bars (46.275) and floor exercise (46.100), and was weakest on pommel horse (44.466). But more on that event in a moment.
Let’s start with vault, which didn’t start all that great when Brooks, a first-time Olympian, stepped out of the landing area on his handspring double front, scoring a 14.400. But his next three teammates delivered, with Alex Naddour and Mikulak both scoring matching 15.100’s, followed by Jake Dalton’s team-leading 15.133 for team total of 45.333.
Next up was parallel bars – an event that truly kicked Team USA into gear after splendid routines by Mikulak (15.375), Dalton (15.166) and Brooks (15.300), and ending with Leyva’s show stopping 15.600. It was a routine reminiscent of 2011, when Leyva won the World title.
At that point, Brooks said he could feel Team USA picking up momentum.
“We got it flowing, we were in a rhythm,” he said.
On high bar, their next event, Dalton led off with a 14.333, but just as Mikulak was about to mount the apparatus, France’s Ait Said Samir was racing down the runway for his vault. A split second later, a loud snapping crack could be heard: Said had broken his leg on the landing.
As awful as it was, Mikulak tried not to look as medical personal raced to the scene on the far side of the arena to tend to the injured gymnast.
“I heard a bunch of oohs, and I kind of just made sure I stayed focused on the routine I was about to do,” Mikulak said. “It’s always a shame when there’s an injury. It’s a horrible thing to happen, but we stayed in our bubble and made sure we focused on each other and not on the other competitors or the standings.”
After a five-minute delay, Mikulak remained composed and hit his routine, posting a 15.133 – second best on the team next to Leyva’s 15.333. Brooks also hit his routine (14.766) despite a row of lights in the rafters going out before he began.
Floor exercise didn’t start out the greatest for Team USA when Naddour stepped out of bounds on a tumbling pass, but back-to-back stellar performances by Mikulak (15.800) and Dalton (15.600) gave the group an event total of 46.100 as confidence settled in.
Leyva started off his team on pommel horse with a 14.533. Next came Brooks, who recorded the first major miss of the day for the group when he rolled off the horse near the end of his routine, scoring a 12.766.
“I got ahead of myself,” Brooks said of the miscue.
He handed the baton to Mikulak, who broke form and could stay on the horse, either. His score: 13.100.
“I actually felt great on pommel,” Mikulak said. “I think I just got a little ahead of myself. I’m not going to make that mistake when it comes into finals.”
Asked what he was thinking about at that point, Brooks said: “I was thinking, I couldn’t wait for Alex to go smash a set. That’s the kind stuff that he lives for. He didn’t do a perfect routine, but he did what he had to do – he picked us up.”
Naddour indeed saved the day for Team USA with a 15.366. The team ended on still rings, with a solid team score of 44.466.
“A little disappointed in pommel horse,” Williams said in assessing the afternoon. “Hopefully, it won’t be a problem on Monday. They have to handle it a little better. They’ve been swinging well in practice. Chris won be out there; we’ll just go with the other three guys, but they have to have a little more confidence. Alex was great. Danell was great. We just got to get Sam to follow suit.”
Mikulak heard the message, loud and clear: He’ll be ready for Monday, no question.
“Today is about setting a tone for team finals,” said Mikulak, who has won the last four national titles. “We didn’t want to put out the best show we’ve ever had in our lives. We wanted to make sure we got up on that equipment – that we’re comfortable and ready to improve on what we did today.”
And if they deliver, improve on what they did four years ago – maybe all the way up onto the medal stand.