SAN JOSE, Calif. – For all but two of the nation’s best male gymnasts, the waiting game begins.
Danell Leyva and John Orozco automatically qualified for their first Olympic team on Saturday, after four days of Trials spread out over an entire month.
The other three members of the five-man team won’t be named until Sunday morning, so 2008 Olympian Jonathan Horton, 2011 NCAA champion Sam Mikulak, and 11 other athletes can only wait as the selection committee decides whether their strengths will fit the needs of the team for London.
Mikulak’s situation became especially nerve-racking after landing short on a vault on Thursday and spraining his left ankle. He had been third overall, but an hour before Saturday’s competition the 19-year-old Southern Californian decided to compete in only one event on the final day (pommel horse) rather than risk further damage in case he is needed in London.
Leyva and Orozco, however, left no room for speculation and were neck and neck throughout the four-part competition (which combined the two-day Visa Nationals in St. Louis and the two-day Olympic Trials in San Jose). Less than one point separated them after each stage.
At the HP Pavilion when they were announced as the first two artistic gymnasts to qualify for London, the happy-go-lucky Leyva was upbeat and tunnel-visioned Orozco was emotional.
“I just can’t believe I’m here right now,” Orozco said through tears. He thanked his Puerto Rican parents whose support never wavered as he pursued his dream in the Bronx, New York. His father, Will, worked as a supervisor for the New York Sanitation Department. His mother, Damaris, was a substitute teacher.
“I love you guys. We did it,” Orozco said.
The Cuban-born Leyva said, “It’s very surreal” and admitted that he had spent Friday night watching the men’s 1996 Olympic Trials for inspiration.
In addition to going 1-2 in the all-around (led by Leyva), the two men also had to place among the top-three on at least three apparatus. Leyva won parallel bars and high bars, and was second overall on pommel horse. Orozco was second on high bar, and third on horse, rings, and parallel bars.
Although both men were thrilled with the outcome of Trials, neither was overjoyed with his performance on the final apparatus on Saturday – the parallel bars. Less than midway through his routine, Orozco’s left hand cramped, and suddenly, he said, “I couldn’t let go with my left arm. I don’t know how I did it.”
Leyva, meanwhile, found himself in trouble after errors on his first and second skills. He realized he had to readjust on the fly, thinking, “Oh I have to do this, that, this, oh, my, I don’t know.” Despite ad-libbing the routine, Leyva still earned the high score of the day on bars (15.85).
Meanwhile, Mikulak said “it was killing me a little inside” to sit on the sidelines. “After the first event, I was like, ‘Coach can you please put me out there?’ I’m such a performer. I saw signs saying 'Marry Me' and thought, ugh, I’m not going to be able to show them my best events.” He still had the fifth-best score on horse and was consistent enough throughout the first three stages of competition to be considered a strong contender to be named to the team.
As for the rest … Horton finished third overall despite breaking two bones and tearing a ligament in his left foot at the 2011 Worlds which forced him to take his only real layoff since the 2008 Olympics where he captured the individual silver medal on high bar and helped the US team earn bronze. He still had the highest overall score on rings, where the US sorely needs him.
Tied for fourth place overall were two University of Oklahoma Sooners: Chris Brooks and Jake Dalton.
Below are the top three on each apparatus after all four days of trials. See if you can figure out who should make the team.
1. Jake Dalton 63.600
2. Steven Legendre 63.200
3. Paul Ruggeri 61.650
1. Alexander Naddour 60.300
2. Leyva 59.000
3. Orozco 58.950
1. Jonathan Horton 61.800
2. Brandon Wynn 61.600
3. Orozco 60.950
1. Jake Dalton 64.850
2. David Sender 64.100
3. Steven Legendre 63.650
1. Leyva 63.550
2. Jonathan Horton 61.750
3. Orozco 60.750
1. Leyva 64.350
2. Orozco 63.200
3. Paul Ruggeri 62.900
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies