By Jo-Ann Barnas, Special contributor
RIO – What he saw was exactly what he wanted.
That’s probably Mark Williams’ top takeaway after the U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team’s podium training session Wednesday at the Rio Olympic Arena – at least in his eyes.
As Team USA’s head coach, it’s his job to set the tone and temperature of his five Olympians in preparation for Saturday’s team qualifying. And keep in mind this: Going into the Games, Williams had said that he wanted to approach his coaching duties similar to the way he handled them when he was head coach for the 2014 World Championships when the U.S. clinched team bronze – it’s only international team medal of the Olympic quad.
The result: So far, so good.
“I felt as we were going along, we did exactly what we wanted to do,’’ Williams said. “I feel like you’re going to compete like you practice, and we had a focused look.”
At its core, podium training is akin to, as Sam Mikulak likes to say, a “mock competition.’’
“We stay in our bubble and when we go up there, we feel that comfort (of knowing) that what we train in the gym is what we take out on the competition floor,” said the 2012 Olympian and four-time national champ. “It was nice to get in the venue, soak up the scenery, get the feel and absorb all of it, and then harness it and put it in competition mode (for Saturday).”
Wednesday’s podium session was also the opportunity to reveal what will likely be the lineup for Saturday’s team qualifying – the crucial step for Team USA to advance to Monday’s team final, where they’ll try to take a significant step up from their fifth-place showing at the 2012 London Olympics.
Based on the order that they showed at podium training – in a competition venue accented by multiple shades of bright green – this will be Saturday’s likely lineup:
- Vault: Alex Naddour, Mikulak, Jake Dalton, Chris Brooks
- Parallel bars: Mikulak, Dalton, Brooks, Danell Leyva
- High bar: Dalton, Mikulak, Brooks, Leyva
- Floor exercise: Naddour, Brooks, Mikulak, Dalton
- Pommel horse: Leyva, Brooks, Mikulak, Naddour
- Still rings: Brooks, Mikulak, Dalton, Naddour
“We’ll talk about it as a coaching staff, but I don’t foresee that we’ll see any changes to prelims,” Williams said after training. “We’re definitely going to see what happens from prelims for finals, but everybody did what I expected today. I was happy with the result.”
Mikulak, who was part of the U.S. world team that won bronze in 2014, is among three two-time Olympians (Dalton and Leyva, who replaced injured John Orozco, are the others). Although he had a couple of mistakes Wednesday – particularly on pommel horse – Mikulak’s voice showed nary a hint of concern after training.
“There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that we can go out and hit all of our routines," he said.
As the competition equipment goes, Brooks, a first-time Olympian and alternate on the 2012 team, said that he had some difficulty getting used to the vaulting table. Meanwhile, several of his teammates commented that the still rings seemed a little tight.
“This is the first time I’ve vaulted on this table – it’s very different than I’m used to, it moves a lot more,” Brooks said. “I’m used to a very hard table – getting on, getting off, very fast. You have to be a little more patient, and that’s not exactly my strong suit.”
Williams knows what’s Brooks is referring to.
“It does have a little different kick to it than we’re used to,” Williams said. “(Brooks) has had to adjust to it, he’s been a little off. He needs to get into the vault a little quicker… but I think he’ll make the adjustment.”
Williams said the floor-exercise floor is more “bouncy” compared to what the athletes are used to, but that they love it, of course, as it lends itself to great jump form. One last small item: Because the arena was super cold Wednesday, he said his gymnasts needed more time to warm up.
“Those are the things we need to make adjustments for,” Williams said with a shrug.
In other words, no big deal.
What Williams saw Wednesday, was exactly what he wanted.