|Danell Leyva prepares for the pommel horse at the 2014 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Nanning, China.|
Two years ago there were great expectations for the U.S. men’s gymnastics team at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
The Americans had a cast that seemed primed to excel, yet the team stumbled out of the medal picture, finishing a disappointing fifth. Only Danell Leyva, with a bronze in the all-around, came home with an individual medal.
Now four members of that London team are back together on the U.S. team that begins competition this weekend in the 2014 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Nanning, China.
Sam Mikulak, John Orozco, Jake Dalton and Leyva were chosen for the team after the P&G Gymnastics Championships in Pittsburgh in August. They’ll be joined by another world championships veteran, Alex Naddour, and newcomer Donnell Whittenburg.
It’s a strong group, led by Mikulak, who just won his second U.S. all-around championship in Pittsburgh. Still, the United States goes in as an underdog to host China and Japan, which finished 1-2 in the London Games (there was no team competition at the 2013 world championships).
Two London veterans rebounded to medal at last year’s world championships in Antwerp, Belgium, with Dalton (silver in floor) and Orozco (bronze in parallel bars). However it’s Mikulak who figures to lead this team. Mikulak finished sixth in the all-around last year and has said his goal is to win a world title. If he can come close and his teammates perform at their best, the U.S. could contend for a team medal, which would be its first since bronze in 2011.
“My whole goal is to be world all-around champion,” Mikulak said after the P&G Championships. “And I’m going to chip away as much as I can and keep pushing the dream.”
The big challenge for Mikulak will be getting past Japan’s Kohei Uchimura, a four-time world champion.
Since arriving in China, Mikulak says the American team has been focused but relaxed. The athletes have been spending off-gym time watching movies together, playing games and “bonding pretty well.”
“The whole team looked very confident, ready, well-practiced,” he said after one practice session.
Here’s a look at the U.S. men competing in China:
|Jake Dalton performs on still rings at the 2014 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships on Sept. 30, 2014 in Nanning, China.|
Jake Dalton (Norman, Oklahoma; age 23): He’s been on three previous world championship teams, including the 2011 team that won a team bronze. He’s coming off an excellent performance in Pittsburgh, where he won the floor exercise (his third national title on the event), was second in parallel bars and third in all-around. Four years ago, competing for the University of Oklahoma, he was NCAA all-around and parallel bars champion.
Danell Leyva (Homestead, Florida.; 22): Leyva could score a medal (or two) in Nanning based on past performance. The four-time parallel bars national champion won gold at the 2011 worlds in the event and also came through with the all-around bronze at the London Games a year later. He’s been competing internationally for the United States since 2007, though he has struggled to regain his form and confidence since London.
Sam Mikulak (Ann Arbor, Michigan; 21): He staged a terrific comeback at the P&G Championships, rallying on the second day of competition to surge past Dalton, Orozco and Leyva to win the U.S. all-around title. He stayed positive and finished strong. “It’s a long competition,” he told reporters. “You can never count yourself out because once you start having negative thoughts, you just beat yourself up.” He also won the pommel horse and finished second in the high bar in Pittsburgh. Earlier this year, he helped the University of Michigan to the NCAA championship while winning the all-around and parallel bars titles.
Alex Naddour (Queen Creek, Arizona; 23): This will be Naddour’s third world championships appearance. He has a team bronze from 2011 in Japan. He was the alternate for the 2012 Olympic Games. In Pittsburgh, he took second in the pommel horse, his best event. He’s won national title on the pommel horse in 2013, 2012 and 2011 and was NCAA champion in 2011 for Oklahoma.
|Donnell Whittenburg performs on pommel horse at the 2014 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships on Sept. 30, 2014 in Nanning, China.|
John Orozco (Colorado Springs, Colorado; 21): Originally from the Bronx, New York, Orozco finished second to Mikulak for this year’s national all-around title, while also taking gold in the high bar. He made his world championships debut in 2011 in Japan, where he was eighth in the high bar, then was eighth in the all-around at the Olympic Games three years later. He won his first world championships medal a year ago in Belgium with a bronze in the parallel bars.
Donnell Whittenburg (Baltimore; 20): He’s the rookie of the group, with little international experience. Whittenburg won the U.S. vault championship and was silver medalist on the still rings in Pittsburgh. He took a big step forward with a strong showing at the Winter Cup Challenge in February (all-around and still rings silver medalist) before his impressive performance at the P&G Championships. His potential is vast. “He’s just been on this vertical learning curve, and he’s improved so much and it’s phenomenal,” national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika told the Baltimore Sun in September. “He can do things in gymnastics that nobody else in the world can do — or very few in the world can do.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.