RIO DE JANEIRO – On Monday in the men’s gymnastics team final, the U.S. saw history repeat itself – and not in a good way.
Having been the standout team in preliminaries in both London four years ago and on Saturday in Rio (when they were second), Team USA faltered for a second consecutive Olympic Games, finishing in fifth place – the same result as London.
It was a disappointing finish to what had looked like peaking performances by Olympic veterans Sam Mikulak, Jake Dalton and Danell Leyva, as well as experienced teammates Alex Naddour and Chris Brooks, who served as alternates in 2012.
But it wasn’t in the cards from the start inside Rio Olympic Arena on Monday, when Naddour opened on the floor exercise and had a scary fall in his final tumbling pass. Mikulak followed and stepped out of bounds twice, scoring a full point lower than he had on floor in the qualification event.
After working their way through the pommel horse (notoriously the team’s weakest event), the U.S. steadied on still rings and fired three straight 15-plus scores on vault, but the deficit was too great to make up in the final two events to push the team into the top three.
“We had a better outcome in mind, but it just didn’t happen today,” Dalton told reporters. “It’s frustrating because we put everything we could into training to be ready for this day – we had a great prelims – but it just wasn’t our day.”
The U.S. tried to make it their day, however, after that less-than-desirable start. Vault began a furious – but ill-fated – comeback as the U.S. scored 15 or higher on all three parallel bar routines, as well, including a “Come on!”-inducing stuck landing from Mikulak on a 15.700 bars routine as the U.S. fans inside the arena roared to life.
Japan would go on to win the gold medal, with Russia taking the silver and 2012 Olympic champion China grabbing the bronze. The U.S. men last landed on the podium in the team event in gymnastics in 2008, when it won bronze in Beijing. It also captured team silver in Athens and the gold – its only – at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
“We were tight on floor,” offered coach Mark Williams plainly. “We didn’t get rolling until rings. We gave ourselves a chance to get back into it… I was hoping that we would come out and be on fire (today).”
The second consecutive fifth-place finish at an Olympics is a frustrating result for a men’s program that has continued to compete with the best in the world. Most recently, the U.S. won a bronze medal as a team at the 2014 world championships.
“These guys did better than they did in London in 2012. They fought through and there was no giving up,” added Williams. “It looked like we were making a comeback, but it was too late.”
The attempted comeback – and the drama it entailed – was thrilling to watch, however.
The U.S. only had large-scale mistakes on pommel horse in the preliminary round Saturday, which saw standout performances on the floor exercise. But while they were improved on the horse Monday, the rough start on floor made things that much harder, and strong performances from Russia, China and Great Britain kept them at bay to start.
Paired with the Chinese team for the meet, the U.S. competed simultaneously with the Brazilian team, which drew raucous applause from fans during each of its athletes’ routines, proving a tough atmosphere for Team USA to compete in.
It was a going-for-broke finish for the U.S. after a frustrating start to the day: They were at their best on vault and parallel bars, a series of fist pumps, hugs and “U-S-A” chants riling up the team from the stands and on the sidelines. Mikulak busied himself rooting on his teammates as they gained momentum into the final rotation on high bar, where he hit a 15.000 and Brooks threw down a 15.108.
With Leyva, the 2011 world champion on bar, last to go, the U.S. was hoping for a best-possible finish. Leyva fell on a layout Tkatchev towards the end of a monster routine, however, staying on his knees for several seconds, clearly disappointed he couldn’t come through when it mattered. But it wouldn’t have: The U.S. was out of medal reach at that point, the writing on the wall.
Leyva, however, was most certainly disappointed in his miss.
“What would have made me feel better is if I would have hit the routine and we got fifth, because then I would have known I did everything I possibly could have,” he told reporters. “The only thing I can say is that I tried grabbing the bar and I slipped off.”
The team held its head high as Leyva left the podium after high bar, gathering in a huddle and coming in for one final cheer. On Wednesday both Mikulak and Brooks return for the individual all-around final, where Leyva won the bronze medal in 2012. Then, three days of individual event finals begin on Sunday.
“I know everyone has done what they can to prepare for this moment,” said Brooks, ruing the chance the Americans missed. “We are disappointed with the outcome, but we are proud of how we competed as a team.”
Many of the questions lobbed at the U.S. team post-final were “what’s next?”-themed as the men reflect on two consecutive fifth-place finishes at the Olympics. Does the U.S. need to do something different systematically to bring home another Olympic medal?
“(Today) was a little shaky from the start,” said Mikulak, the reigning four-time U.S. champion. “This competition is about who has the best day on this day. That’s what those teams did. I never looked at the standings.”
Team USA appeared to be most proud of its fighting spirit after starting slowly.
“We picked things back up and got the ball rolling,” said Dalton. “Nobody gave up; we fought all the way to the end.”
“I will have a very vivid memory of this day for years to come,” a good-spirited Mikulak said. “We just didn’t have the best day that we needed to.”