Four years ago, the U.S. men’s artistic gymnastics squad sent backups to the quadrennial Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, saving its best for the world championships.
This time around the lineup has some of the program’s biggest stars — and some who could be the program’s next stars. One of those vying for the spotlight is Paul Ruggeri, a national team veteran who claimed three medals — including one gold — at the 2011 Pan Am Games.
“We have a very strong team,” Ruggeri said. “Brazil is our No. 1 rival. They look very good and have a lot of young talent. So it’s time to shine. This is the ball that starts things rolling for the Olympic process.”
A classic late bloomer, the 26-year-old former Illinois star considered quitting the sport after failing to make the 2012 Olympic team. Now he finds himself in the thick of the chase for a 2016 Olympic berth.
“I’m so grateful,” he said.
Another American to watch is Sam Mikulak, the two-time reigning U.S. all-around champion and sixth-place finisher in the all-around at the 2013 world championships. Mikulak made his Olympic debut for Team USA in 2012.
Donnell Whittenburg, who along with Mikulak helped Team USA win a bronze medal at the 2014 world championships, is also on the Pan Am team.
Rounding out the men’s team is Marvin Kimble and Steven Legendre.
Although the top women will sit out Toronto, the artistic team’s lineup still includes elite talent, including Madison Desch, 17, a bars and beams specialist and national team member since 2011. She was a reserve on the 2014 U.S. world championships team. Another American to watch is Rachel Gowey, a 17-year-old who trains at the same Des Moines, Iowa, gym that produced Olympic champions Gabby Douglas and Shawn Johnson. Gowey fractured her right ankle at last summer’s U.S. championships, putting an end to what had been a breakout season. Joining Desch and Gowey is Amelia Hundley, Emily Schild and Megan Skaggs.
Jazzy Kerber and Laura Zeng will represent Team USA in individual rhythmic gymnastics. Kerber has spent the past two years as the United States’ No. 1 rhythmic gymnast. In a sport dominated by Russia and Eastern European countries, she advanced to the all-around finals of both the 2013 and 2014 world championships.
Zeng, a ninth-grader from Libertyville, Illinois, won a bronze medal in the rhythmic all-around at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games Nanjing, China. It was the first U.S. rhythmic medal of any kind in either the Olympic or Youth Olympic Games. Zeng also beat out Kerber at the recent USA Gymnastics Championships. Both Zeng and Kerber train at the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center near Chicago, home for some of America’s premier rhythmic performers.
Competing in group rhythmic gymnastics is Kiana Eide, Alisa Kano, Natalie McGiffert, Jenny Rokhman, Monica Rokhman and Kristen Shaldybin.
In trampoline, 2012 Olympian Steven Gluckstein vaulted back onto the scene with an unexpected victory in April at the Pan Am qualifying event in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A broken wrist had limited him to just one event prior to the event. Runner-up Logan Dooley, 27, also earned a Pan Am berth.
In women’s trampoline, Clare Johnson, 17, competing in her first full season as a senior or Olympic-level athlete, was another surprise in Pan Am qualifying, finishing second to veteran Charlotte Drury of Laguna Niguel, California.
Pan Am gymnastics competition is set for July 11-20 at the Toronto Coliseum.
In overall medal count for the 2011 Pan Am Games gymnastics competition, the United States came out on top with six gold medals, followed by Mexico in second place, which had three golds, and Brazil, close behind in third with three gold medals as well. Canada won three silver medals in the women’s competition and a bronze and silver in men’s.
Clay Latimer is a Denver-based writer who covered four Olympic Games, in addition to other sports, over 28 years with the Rocky Mountain News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.