Life was easier when Olympic teams had six gymnasts.
Unlike the U.S. women, with their embarrassment of riches, the U.S. men have a good team but one with some holes. That can make picking the five best men to bring to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympic Games this August feel like a game of whack-a-mole.
Take one of two high bar stars and risk sending a dangerously weak pommel horse unit to Rio. Pick the pommel horse specialist and risk diluting the depth on the stronger events. And pick the five hottest gymnasts right now, then risk leaving the country’s most accomplished gymnast back home.
Those risks are being assessed, and they’ll ultimately be decided upon this weekend.
The process for picking the U.S. Olympic Team began earlier this month at the U.S. championships in Hartford, Connecticut, and wraps up when the top 18 gymnasts compete Thursday and Saturday nights at the men’s Olympic Trials in St. Louis.
Up to two U.S. men can automatically make Team USA with a top-two all-around finish while also finishing top-three in three events over the combined four days of competition (two days from P&G Championships in Hartford and two days of competition in St. Louis). However, with nobody meeting the criteria at the midway mark, all five choices could come down to a committee.
The selection committee will weigh the group to determine the best five men for the team competition finals — in which three gymnasts compete on each apparatus, and all three scores count — as well as potential for medaling in individual events.
Here are 10 gymnasts who could be in the mix:
Chris Brooks: It’s been a long journey for Brooks. After making his first world championships team in 2010, Brooks’ career has been filled with a myriad of injuries and near misses. Injuries kept the 2012 Olympic alternate out for most of the 2013 and ’14 seasons, but a late-career, now-or-never move to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado has paid off. Initially named an alternate for the 2015 world championships, Brooks was promoted to the main team following Sam Mikulak’s injury withdrawal and ended up finishing sixth in the individual high bar competition. The 29-year-old followed that by winning the parallel bars and finishing second in the all-around and on high bar at this year’s U.S. championships. Brooks is undoubtedly one of the top options — if not the top option — for Team USA on both bars events, but with the American men deep on both apparatuses, his Olympic dreams likely depend on how much he can boost his scores on the other four events.
Jake Dalton: Although rarely one of the headline names on the U.S. team, Dalton is consistently a top U.S. man on floor exercise and vault, and he’d be a safe bet for the still rings in the Olympic team final. Despite never being the top American all-arounder, Dalton, a 2012 Olympian, has finished third at each of his past three national championships. After missing the 2015 nationals with an injury, the 24-year-old Dalton is back this year and appeared to back in full form when winning national titles in floor and vault (tied). He’s also won two individual world championships medals — a silver medal on floor exercise in 2013 and a bronze medal on vault in 2014. Barring a big setback in St. Louis, count Dalton as a favorite to make his second Olympic team.
Marvin Kimble: An alternate on last year’s world championships team, Kimble comes to St. Louis as a dark horse to make Team USA. His future looked bright after finishing fifth in the all-around at the 2015 U.S. championships, but he dropped off to a tie for eighth this year. As one of the better Americans on pommel horse, you can’t write off the 20-year-old Kimble’s chances. However, he might be gaining experience now for a more likely run at the 2020 Games.
Danell Leyva: Perhaps no gymnast has more to lose, or to gain, in St. Louis than Leyva. He comes into the trials in a slump, and if the team were named today he’d probably be on the outside looking in. But Leyva is also the most accomplished U.S. man internationally, highlighted by his Olympic all-around bronze medal in 2012, and he’s only 24 years old. Plus, his dismal 16th-place finish at the U.S. championships came after he was injured trying to break up a dogfight. Still, inconsistency has been Leyva’s story since the London Games. Although he won individual medals at each of the last two world championships, he hasn’t finished better than fifth in the all-around at the U.S. championships since London. His competency and big-meet experience helps his case, but even with a drastic improvement in St. Louis, Leyva faces an uphill battle to make his second Olympic team.
Sam Mikulak: If there’s one person who should be a lock for the Rio team, it’s Mikulak, who won his fourth consecutive U.S. all-around title earlier this month. The 23-year-old overcame two broken ankles in 2011 to make the London Olympic team, and ever since he’s been a step ahead of his compatriots. In addition to his four U.S. all-around titles, Mikulak has won five individual event national titles since 2013 while transitioning from a collegiate star at Michigan to a professional in 2014. He’s strong across the board, though particularly dangerous on the pommel horse and the two bars events. Despite his success domestically, however, Mikulak is still looking to break through internationally. His best individual result at the world championships was sixth place in the all-around in 2013, and he missed last year’s worlds with a partially torn Achilles tendon.
Akash Modi: A rising star in U.S. men’s gymnastics, Modi, 21, finished fourth in the all-around at the U.S. championships. He could contribute on pommel horse and parallel bars, but without a truly marquee event or big-time international experience, Modi is a long shot to make the U.S. team — at least in 2016.
Alex Naddour: Naddour finds himself in a similar position as Chris Brooks and Paul Ruggeri: specialists who are among the top Americans on some events, but who are less substantial in others. The benefit Naddour has going for him — he’s good on apparatuses where the U.S. men are weaker: pommel horse, floor exercise and still rings. Naddour, a 2012 Olympic alternate, has four U.S. titles and one runner-up finish on the horse since 2011, although a fall in his first routine at this year’s nationals left him in sixth place. Still, the 25-year-old’s case should be boosted by his experience competing in the past four world championships, especially after he made the pommel horse event finals in each of the past two years.
John Orozco: A lot has changed since Orozco won his first — and so far, only — U.S. all-around championship in 2012. After making that year’s Olympic team and seeming to establish himself as a star for years to come, Orozco has battled multiple injuries and the unexpected death of his mother in February 2015. On paper, the 23-year-old’s results at this year’s U.S. championships don’t stand out — he was 10th in the all-around and only had one top-three individual event finish. But considering that he only returned to competition from a torn right Achilles tendon (his second) in February, and that he’s at least respectable in the U.S. men’s worst event, pommel horse, Orozco has a real path to his second Olympic team provided he can continue to show improvement in St. Louis.
Paul Ruggeri III: Patiently waiting his turn, Ruggeri was a three-time world championships alternate before finally getting the chance to compete last year. Now the 27-year-old is a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team, and if Olympic teams were still six gymnasts his case would be particularly strong. Ruggeri ended the U.S. championships with top-three finishes in three events — floor exercise, high bar and vault. However, the U.S. men are deep on high bar and vault, and Ruggeri is relatively weak on his other three events. Deciding on Ruggeri’s fate could be the hardest choice the selection committee makes this weekend.
Donnell Whittenburg: A rising star in U.S. gymnastics, Whittenburg is the best bet among those hoping to make their first U.S. Olympic Team in 2016. The powerful 21-year-old has already competed in two world championships, winning a vault bronze medal last year and qualifying for all-around finals both times. His eighth-place all-around finish in 2015 was the best among Americans (in Mikulak’s absence, to be sure). A top-choice competitor in still rings — he’s the two-time defending U.S. champion — Whittenburg is also among the top U.S. gymnasts on vault and could factor on parallel bars. However, he will have to rebound after a shaky performance at the U.S. championships earlier this month before he can get too comfortable.
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic Movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.