Sam Mikulak competes on the rings at the 2016 Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships at Xfinity Arena on April 8, 2016 in Everett, Wash.
The 2016 Men’s P&G Gymnastics Championships begin on Friday in Hartford, Connecticut, and will feature a field of 11 men who have combined for 39 U.S. titles and 12 world championships medals.
The competition will determine both the men’s senior national champions and national team, as well as the athletes who will advance to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials on June 23-25 in St. Louis. From there, five men will be chosen to represent Team USA at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
Here’s a look at six storylines to follow at this week’s championships.
1. Veterans Abound
Veterans abound as four of five men are back from the U.S. team that finished fifth at the London 2012 Olympic Games, with all but Jonathan Horton set to take the Hartford mats. Horton, a two-time Olympian and two-time Olympic medalist, is unlikely to come back to competitive gymnastics after undergoing shoulder surgery earlier this year. But the U.S. contingent is still rolling; the squad most recently took gold in every event final, as well as four silvers, at April’s Pacific Rim Championships. Team USA qualified for the 2016 Games with its fifth-place finish at last October’s world championships in Scotland.
2. Sam Mikulak’s Attempt To Four-peat
Mikulak is the three-time defending U.S. all-around national champion and has been Team USA’s bona fide star over the last Olympic cycle, but he’s had a glass ceiling internationally. Meanwhile, he’s had his share of struggles with injuries, and a partially torn Achilles’ tendon kept him out of the world championships last fall, leaving him looking rusty at March’s American Cup and April’s Pacific Rim Championships. The 2015 Pan American Games all-around champion has the potential to be a Rio 2016 medal contender, but he must first up his consistency to match his acrobatic brilliance.
3. Can Donnell Whittenburg Surpass Mikulak?
The 22-year-old emerging star has played second fiddle to Mikulak the last two years and also has the potential to win an individual medal in Rio. The 2015 world vault bronze medalist and three-time 2015 Pan American Games silver medalist often makes up for his form issues with his amplitude and difficulty. He has beaten Mikulak the last two times they faced off, at March’s AT&T American Cup and April’s Pacific Rim Championships.
4. Did Jake Dalton And John Orozco Come Back In Time?
Having just returned from agonizing injuries this spring, will Jake Dalton and John Orozco still have time to prove themselves before Rio? The pair of 2012 Olympians came back from shoulder surgery and a torn Achilles tendon, respectively, and both have since competed at the Pacific Rim Championships and Olympic test event. Over the past six years, the Bronx-born Orozco and 2012 U.S. all-around champion has torn his Achilles twice, in addition to his ACL and meniscus. Furthermore, his mother, Damaris, died unexpectedly following knee surgery in 2015. Both gymnasts will be tested physically and mentally in Hartford, knowing the pressure to perform may be on them more visibly than their teammates.
5. Danell Leyva Looks For More Hardware
The most accomplished active U.S. man in international competition, Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva, is looking to turn it back on for the Olympic year. Cuban-born Leyva was the 2011 U.S. all-around champion and won the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials before becoming just the third American man ever to win an Olympic all-around medal, after Peter Vidmar (1984) and Paul Hamm (2004). But the high-flying bars master, who brings a lucky blue towel with him to every competition, has been up and down since that historic performance, claiming two individual medals at the world championships yet failing to finish higher than fifth in the all-around at any U.S. championships since then.
6. Make Way For The Fresh Faces
Every competition has its underdogs, so who are the names that could supplant the Olympians in Hartford? With several of the U.S. men rocky on pommel horse, strong pommel workers Marvin Kimble and Alex Naddour may have a chance to shine in the event. Kimble was the 2015 Pan American Games pommel horse champion, while Naddour has been the most consistent on the apparatus over time and is the defending national champion in the event. Paul Ruggeri, meanwhile, has the potential to soar on high bar and parallel bars, while Eddie Penev has held his own on pommel horse, floor and vault. There’s also 2015 world team member Brandon Wynn, a four-time U.S. champion on still rings.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.