Chris Brook competes on parallel bars and Sam Mikulak competes on the pommel horse in the men's individual all-around final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Arena on Aug. 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
RIO DE JANEIRO – Sam Mikulak and Chris Brooks came to Rio to win an Olympic medal, but as one of the fiercest individual men’s all around battles raged inside Rio Olympic Arena, the two Americans put out their best gymnastics – and it just wasn’t enough.
Brooks peaked as high as fifth midway through the competition but finished 14th while Mikulak surged to a seventh-place finish having at one point been as low as 19th. The Americans were unable to win a second consecutive all-around medal for Team USA four years after Danell Leyva left the London Games with bronze.
Reigning Olympic all-around champion Kohei Uchimura surged back in a dramatic finish for the top spot, the six-time world champ leapfrogging Ukraine’s Oleg Verniaiev in the last event, edging him out 92.365 to 92.266. Max Whitlock of Great Britain won the bronze.
Uchimura becomes the first man to repeat as Olympic champion since Sawao Kato, his Japanese countryman, in 1968 and 1972.
It was a steady day for the Americans, who bookended the competition with their weakest event, the pommel horse. Mikulak started there with a 14.600, while Brooks was forced to finish there, struggling on the handstand of his dismount and scoring a 13.200. Mikulak finished the day with a 89.361, 1.28 points off the medal stand, while Brooks registered a 87.632 overall.
Paul Hamm is the only American man to win the all-around title at the Olympics, having done so in 2004.
“(Finishing) seventh with how I started on the first three, I’m definitely happy with that,” said Mikulak, who will compete in the floor and high bar event finals. “I picked up some momentum as the meet went. I proved to myself that I can hit six for six in this pressure situation. Through nationals and trials I wasn’t sure I could, and I showed myself and the world that I could do it.”
While the two-time Olympian Mikulak said he has another Olympic cycle – perhaps even two – in mind, Brooks was making his Games debut at the age of 29. He said he walks away from Rio proud of what he accomplished to get this far.
“There’s not much special about me… I’ve had tons of injuries and it’s felt like the cards have been stacked against me,” explained Brooks. “But when you have a lot of heart and determination and you don’t give up, that’s when good things happen. That’s my message to all of the young people out there: Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do something, because look at me.”
The standout moment of the day came when Brooks had a long wait at the high bar as the previous score was being calculated. He rested his arms on the chalk bowl, saying later he said a prayer to his father, who passed away in 2008, then walked up and delivered his best score of the day.
“Chris was absolutely amazing,” said Kevin Mazeika, the men’s national team coordinator. “He wraps up his Olympic Games with hitting six for six routines. That was awesome to see.”
Mikulak had talked about dreams of a gold medal at U.S. Olympic Team Trials in St. Louis in June, but after a steady performance on pommel horse, he didn’t hit the set he wanted to on rings and then nearly hit his knees to the ground on his landing on vault, saying he got anxious.
The meet overall, however, was a reminder to the 23-year-old that he wants to continue, not only with Tokyo in mind for 2020, but beyond.
“I want to do this for another two quads,” Mikulak said, smiling. “Put me in this sport for as long as possible and I’ll be a happy man. This is my life.”
There were plenty of highlights for both Mikulak and Brooks, neither one of them making any major mistakes or falling off an apparatus, while they both fired themselves up after particularly strong routines with fist pumps and cries of “Come on!” At certain points throughout the meet, the American contingent in the arena brought out chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” both Mikulak and Brooks with family cheering them on.
Brooks, who had been an alternate for the 2012 team in London, said this experience was the better of the two – obviously.
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“This one was a lot better,” he said, laughing. “It was an emotional roller coaster, but a better one. To see my name up there, hear it being called… I am incredibly honored to be a part of this whole thing and represent my country and my family.”
The men’s event was a nail-biter at the finish line, Uchimura, the sport’s top contender, trailing Verniaiev by nearly a point heading to the high bar. But the Japanese superstar threw down there and then Verniaiev, last to go, was hesitant throughout, his 14.800 leaving him a tenth shy of Olympic gold.
The two men grabbed their country’s flags and stepped on to the podium, waving to the crowd inside the arena.
While the U.S. women won team gold on Tuesday night and Simone Biles looks primed to capture Olympic all-around gold Thursday, the U.S. men know they have their work cut out for them to be one of the best programs in the world.
“At the end of the day, two guys in the all-around final and we’re both hitting six for six, we’re moving in the right direction,” said Brooks. “We need to get better, but I think that (what we did today) is a statement.”
“I am going to take this experience, find all of my silver linings and takeaways and I am going to use that to my advantage,” added Mikulak. “I’m not done with this sport. I’ve gained a lot of experience by being here.”
Brooks isn’t hanging things up immediately, saying he’ll compete moving forward, but is not thinking about Tokyo and 2020.
Later this week, Jake Dalton will join Mikulak in the floor final, while Alex Naddour will do the pommel horse, Danell Leyva the parallel bars and Leyva and Mikulak the high bar.
It’s not the hardware that Team USA is used to, but the dedication and the sacrifice are what both men walk away from the gym being proud of.
“This is the culmination of a lot of hard work and effort from a ton of different people,” said Brooks. “Making all-around final and hitting routines, I just want to look back on it and be happy with it and then move on to the next thing.”