Sam Mikulak competes on the vault in the men's gymnastics qualification at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Rio Olympic Arena on Aug. 6, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
RIO DE JANEIRO – On the day that they had waited so long for, the U.S. men delivered on the Olympic stage. Now it’s one down, one to go.
Behind a stellar performance from four-time all-around national champion Sam Mikulak, Team USA took second place in the men’s gymnastics qualification, with 2012 gold medalist China leading the way and the U.S., Russia, Japan, Great Britain and Brazil rounding out the top six.
Ukraine and Germany also made the eight-team final, where team scores will start from zero.
Mikulak was seventh overall in the individual all-around qualification, his 15.800 on the floor routine the best score of the day in that event. That performance spurred the Americans to a 270.405 overall score, a full point ahead of rival Japan at 269.294 (who had competed earlier in the day). Competing in the final of three subdivisions, China bested both nations with a score of 270.461.
“We just want to continue to build momentum,” the 23-year-old Mikulak said post-event. “We’re hungrier than ever. We made a little bit of a statement and hopefully that statement will carry over.”
It was four years ago at the London Games that such a statement didn’t carry over when the U.S. men were first after preliminaries, only to fall to fifth in the team final with a rough go-around on pommel horse. They find themselves in a similar scenario here in Rio.
Their Achilles’ heel – pommel horse – reared its ugly head again on the Olympic stage Saturday, but the American men shook off consecutive mistakes on it in the fifth rotation to end the day strong.
“I’m a little disappointed in pommel horse,” coach Mark Williams said. “But those guys were comfortable and did their job. It was a great effort. They have to handle it a little better (Monday). We have been swinging well in practice. Chris (Brooks) went out there… you have to have more confidence.”
After falls from both Brooks, the team captain, and Mikulak on that apparatus, Alex Naddour delivered when he needed to, hitting a 15.366 and touching his hand to his chest after hitting his landing, more than happy with the work he had done.
All five of the U.S. men stepped up when they needed to at one point or another, including Olympic veteran Danell Leyva. Leyva, who won all around bronze in 2012 in London, sat out the first rotation on vault. The U.S. had a few wobbles there, but Leyva went last on parallel bars in Rotation 2 and hit a monster routine, scoring a 15.600. Two rotations later, Jake Dalton added to Mikulak’s 15.800 on the floor routine with a 15.600 of his own. The U.S., trailing Great Britain to start the day, had the lead and never looked back.
“I’ve been waiting for the Olympics for four years now and it’s finally here,” a smiling Leyva said, who had been an alternate before John Orozco tore his ACL in training a few weeks ago. “Anytime I was anxious, I took a deep breath and looked up at the rings. That made everything a lot easier.”
Plenty has been learned from four years ago when the men won preliminaries: Focus on the now, do what needs to be done and don’t try to meet anyone’s expectations except their own. They’ll apply all of that to the next 48 hours.
“We’re handling it a lot differently because they’ve been there before,” Williams said. “I don’t think the guys are as high as they were emotionally in 2012. They’re ready to go again on Monday. They want to prove themselves this time. I love being the underdog at the Olympics. Coming out of this having two mistakes, that means we can do better.”
It wasn’t a perfect day at the Olympic office, but it’s one the U.S. men are satisfied with and will encourage them to “clean up the little details,” as Brooks put it.
Scores themselves are wiped clean for Monday’s team final, as well as Wednesday’s individual all-around final and event finals thereafter.
Brooks, the other American competing in the all around, was 19th in the standings (with 24 gymnasts qualifying). While Mikulak finished seventh in the all-around, places third through eighth were separated by less than a point. Oleg Verniaiev of Ukraine was first, with reigning Olympic champion Kohei Uchimura of Japan in second.
Mikulak has qualified for the floor exercise (that 15.800 put him in first) individual final, as well as the high bar final. Dalton will join Mikulak on floor, while Leyva has made finals in both the parallel and high bars. Naddour’s pommel horse performance was good enough to put him into that final, as well.
It was during Rotation 3 of the second subdivision when French gymnast Samir Ait Said broke his leg on a vault landing, a horrific injury that could be heard throughout the arena and changed the tone of the competition for several minutes thereafter. The Americans said they had to stay in a zone to keep focused.
“It’s a horrible thing to happen, but we stayed in our bubble,” said Mikulak, who was on the high bar as it happened. “We made sure that we focused on each other. We stayed in our bubble. If someone hits, cheer them on; if someone misses, pick them up. We continued to do that.”
“Even if we’re on different teams from different countries, we’re all friends, we all know each other,” Leyva added. “I’ve known Samir since I was 14. It sucks, it really does. But we have a job to do, so you have to forget about it.”
What the American men have also done their best to do is forget about what happened in 2012, when they were at the top after preliminaries and then faltered.
“I think we were just in awe of the moment,” Mikulak remembered, having been on that team with Leyva and Dalton (Naddour and Brooks were alternates). “The Olympic scene, all of us being first-timers aside from (Jonathan) Horton and we were just so pumped up about everything. I think we might have believed that we already proved ourselves. We still have performances that matter… what we did today means nothing on Monday.”
“The routines weren’t perfect, but we did our job for today,” said Leyva. “The job today was to qualify for the team final in the highest position and we did that. Now we just have to clean up whet little mistakes that we made. The only thing we can control is our own routines.”
At the completion of the competition, team captain Brooks gathered the guys in a huddle and let them know they should be standing proud.
“I said that we went out there to hit routines and we did that on everything except for horse,” Brooks said. “We still have room for improvement. I reminded the guys of that.”
The team also got a surprise as they exited the arena: A hello from Secretary of State John Kerry, who had come to wish them well.
“It was awesome to see him here giving us words of encouragement,” said Mikulak. “He’s such a great man. You feel nothing but pride when you shake his hand. He told me that we’re representing the U.S. so well and that we should be proud.”