Alex Naddour, Jake Dalton, Sam Mikulak, Danell Leyva and Chris Brooks pose for a photo while at podium training on Aug. 3, 2016 at Rio Olympic Arena in Rio de Janeiro.
RIO DE JANEIRO – Go ahead, call the U.S. men’s gymnastics team “old.” They won’t mind. For the 2016 version of the Olympic squad, experience is what matters.
The five-member team here in Rio includes three Olympic returnees — Jake Dalton, Danell Leyva and Sam Mikulak — as well as two former alternates — Chris Brooks and Alex Naddour – in what they all hope will be an improved effort from a fifth-place finish at the London 2012 Olympic Games four years ago.
“This go-around, doing this whole thing, walking in the village, we don’t have that ‘this-moment-is-insane’ feeling,” Mikulak said Wednesday. “It’s more like, Hey, this is the village, let’s do our gymnastics, let’s eat the right things, let’s make sure we’re managing the stress the right way and attacking it with the mindset of, ‘We’re ready for this, let’s go, no questions asked.’ Let’s handle our business.”
It’s a mindset that was echoed across the board as the men met with media Wednesday: Do our gymnastics, stay focused and — when it’s all said and done — win an Olympic team medal for the first time since 2008.
The U.S. men took a surprising lead after the qualification round in 2012, a position that left them somewhat overconfident heading into the team final. They faltered there, dropping out of the medal standings and leaving them crushed at an opportunity lost on the Olympic stage.
The learning — and that feeling they felt in London — is still palpable four years later, however. Something they think will help inside Rio Olympic Arena over the next week.
“Last time, we were young and we weren’t sure how we were going to stand up against the rest of the world,” said Mikulak, now 23 and a four-time national all-around champion. “It’s something we have learned from and harnessed over the last four years.”
“If you understand that every experience and every situation is helpful, then (that’s) going to be helpful,” said Leyva, who won individual bronze in the all-around in London. “Regardless of what the situation or experience is, as long as you can take from it, it’s going to be helpful.”
Leyva was initially an alternate for the U.S. men’s squad in Rio only to be put on the team when John Orozco, another 2012 Olympian, tore his ACL last month in training after the Olympic Trials.
“I’m extremely honored to be here,” said Leyva, 24. “The circumstances and the way that it happened were not ideal. But we’re all like brothers, especially Orozco, who I’ve known for a long time. He has been through so much in the last year.”
It’s Brooks and Naddour who served in that alternate role in 2012 only to stay the course over the last four years. They sat in the stands to watch Team USA in London. This time they’ll be on the competition floor.
“It’s harder as an athlete to be in the stands and not have any control,” said Naddour, who had his first child with former uneven bars world champion Hollie Vise earlier this year. “I’m really excited about it. For me, I’m trying to soak everything in. I wanted that experience last time and I didn’t have it. It could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m very happy to be here.”
But that happiness does not translate into complacency. The disappointment in London was palpable not only for the three who competed that are back for Rio, but for the entire U.S. men’s gymnastics program.
“A team that struggles together grows together,” said Brooks, who is the eldest of the bunch at 29 and was picked as team captain. “We’ve seen the process over the last four years having coming off of London, having a very talented team and not quite getting the result that they wanted as a team. Everyone has committed since then: ‘Whatever we need to do, let’s do it.’ That grind in the gym, it’s created a bond that’s hard to build otherwise.”
That bond has only strengthened over the last few weeks as the five have been solidified. In Rio, they eat meals together, relax together, talk about handling the pressure and stress together. Wednesday they went from their press conference and one-on-one interviews to a “TODAY” show sit-down, then a Q&A on Facebook.
As they strolled back to the village, Mikulak posted a video on his Snapchat saying it was a long day but one that they had survived. They’ve been here, done that: Their focus is on what they need to accomplish. Saturday is qualification, with the team final set for Monday.
“In qualification, we want to go out and hit sets,” said Dalton. “I know that’s not the answer you guys want to hear, but for us, we know that we can get on that podium… Yes, we think we can medal, but we want to just do our gymnastics that we know can do.”
The team is coached by Mark Williams, who has worked with both Dalton and Brooks over the last few years and is also the head coach at the University of Oklahoma, their alma mater. They’ll face their biggest challenges in squads from Japan, Great Britain, China, Switzerland, South Korea and Brazil.
That podium though? That’s what they’re after.
“We all have things to prove,” said Mikulak, who is considered the highest hope for a medal in the individual all-around. “We all have high aspirations. We don’t want to come out of this with no medals at all. We are making sure that we stick to ourselves, stay in our U.S. bubble and when we compete, we compete not only for ourselves but for our entire country and our family and friends.”
It’s an Olympic approach that has been shaped by a past failure, but could be the recipe for future — very near-future — success.