© John Cheng

By John Powers

Four of them were in London four years ago for an Olympic fortnight that was both invigorating and incomplete. “Especially where we felt we were good enough to get a medal,” says Jake Dalton, whose teammates placed fifth. “So coming away without one is a big fire-burner for us.”

So Dalton, John Orozco, Sam Mikulak and Alex Naddour stayed in for another quadrennium and they’re back in Everett, Wash., for the Pacific Rim Championships presented by Hershey’s where the U.S. men’s gymnastics team will defend its title Friday night at the XFINITY Arena in its last major international competition before this summer’s Rio Games. “It’s unique having so many guys continue from one Games to the next,” says national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika. “That depth is crucial and it’s irreplaceable.”

Jonathan Horton was the only holdover from 2008 to 2012. Not since 1952 have the Americans had more than two Olympic veterans make the squad. With all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva still in the mix they have all but one member of the previous squad in contention for this one. “After London we said, ‘I can still go, can you still go? Let’s do this.’,” says Naddour, who was an alternate then.

The 2012 group, with only one member over 20, was young enough for another go. “Everyone wants to do gymnastics for as long as they possibly can,” says Sam Mikulak. “This isn’t a sport where you’re going to be a superstar and make millions and millions of dollars. So if you’re in it, you’re in it because you love doing it. And the only reason you want to stop is because your body won’t let you.”

The bloc of veterans continuing on from London as well as subsequent world medalists Brandon Wynn, Steven Legendre and Donnell Whittenburg have made for a decidedly deep pool. “It helps a ton because not only do we have guys that are coming back from the last Olympic cycle but we also have new guys who’ve won medals in this cycle,” says Orozco, who’ll be defending his Pac Rim all-around title. “It’s going to make for a better showing.”

It’s also going to make for an exceptionally competitive battle for places on the Rio squad. “It’s going to be this giant puzzle where you probably have five different matches but it’s finding out what’s going to be the best one,” says Mikulak. “And you won’t know that until Championships and Trials come along.”

More often than not in past Olympic years most of the roster spots could be penciled in months in advance. Not this time. “We have so many great athletes all vying for five spots,” says Mazeika. “It just pushes everybody to that highest level. The bar’s been raised.”

Whichever quintet emerges in June this U.S. team will enjoy a most uncommon camaraderie based on years of shared experiences. “It’s incredible, all of us growing up through the sport,” observes Dalton. “For me, it’s more than just competing together. It’s the relationships and the memories that you’re going to take away when you’re done that you can look back on and just absolutely love — and be friends with these guys forever.”