SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — So much for the U.S. men’s gymnastics team being a two-man show.
Sam Mikulak was impressive during the first day of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials Thursday, threatening to break up the grip national champion John Orozco and Danell Leyva have on the role of top Americans heading into the London Olympics.
Looking as relaxed as if he was competing in a college dual meet for Michigan, the 2011 NCAA champion posted an all-around score of 91.80, the best on a day many of the other contenders to make the five-man Olympic team faltered.
Leyva moved past Orozco into first place in the overall standings, which combine scores from nationals and trials, but couldn’t top Mikulak, at least for a couple of hours. Mikulak remained third in the overall standings but drew closer to the top two heading into the finals Saturday.
The team won’t be announced until Sunday morning, but Mikulak took major strides into having his name written down in pen – not pencil – with a sublime performance that showed the 19-year-old is ready for the sport’s biggest stage.
Though Mikulak lack’s Leyva’s daring and Orozco’s intensity, he makes up for it with a polish of a guy who has been there, done that and has the medals to prove it.
Mikulak was on pace to make the world team last fall before breaking both of his legs during a meet in Puerto Rico last summer. His rehab set him back several months and the legs remained so tender it wasn’t until recently that coach Kurt Golder let his precocious star bust loose.
And just in time.
Mikulak’s only misstep came during a momentary hesitation while trying to move into a handstand at the end of his pommel horse routine. Veins bulged out of his neck as he fought the lactic acid in his arms and shoulders to push himself into proper position on the way to his dismount. He survived with a serviceable 14.550, not great but not bad in an event the U.S. typically struggles in.
Orozco and Leyva have spent the last six months playing hot potato in the role of best American gymnast. Orozco came in to top – for the moment – after stunning Leyva in the final rotation at the national championships in St. Louis three weeks ago with a brilliant floor routine to win the all-around title by 0.05 points.
Barring disaster, the two are locks for London. Still, this rivalry – however friendly it is – continues to grow in intensity.
The dynamic Leyva was perhaps a little too amped up. Leading off on floor, he zipped through a sloppy set that included a step out of bounds, moving so quickly it appeared he’d chugged a fistful of Red Bulls before taking the floor.
Orozco, dubbed the “Silent Ninja” because of the way he sneaks up on the competition, stumbled a bit on pommel horse, stalling just before his dismount. It was all the opening Leyva needed despite a somewhat ho-hum afternoon that lacked the “wow” factor that’s made him perhaps the most charismatic gymnast of his generation.
Leyva played it safe on parallel bars, where he’s world champion, and calmly ripped through his high bar routine knowing all he needs to do is avoid major mistakes or injury to earn a ticket to the O2 Arena next month.
While Mikulak gave Orozco and Leyva company at the top, the other competition for the other two spots started to crystalize.
Chris Brooks began the day in the mix only to see his chances unravel during a 20-minute stretch. He over-rotated his vault and stumbled forward while trying to stick the landing. His attempt to bounce back on the parallel bars in his next event went awry quickly. He was only seconds into his routine when he sailed off the bar and into the realm of also-ran, posting a miserable 13.950.
The affable 25-year-old gritted his teeth after finally landing his dismount, then ducked behind a curtain and let out his frustrations in a nearby hallway.
While Brooks sagged, the other major contenders bolstered their chances. Jake Dalton now has the top scores on floor and vault through three rounds and is within the top 10 on rings, parallel bars and high bars.
The other spot is Jonathan Horton’s to lose, but even the 2008 silver medalist on the high bar endured a rare miscue on his signature event. His grips appeared to slip off the bar on his first release move, sending him tumbling to the mat.
The only Olympian still in the field is sure to get the benefit of the doubt by the selection committee.
So too is Orozco, who finished a point behind Leyva and Mikulak. The 19-year-old from the Bronx took a step back, literally, on vault. He failed to get the proper height off the table and crouched while landing. His rear never hit the floor, but his hands did and the 14.8 he received blunted his momentum.
Still, Orozco and Leyva remain in perfect position to earn an automatic spot on the team, which is reserved for the top two all-around finishers provided they also rank among the top three in at least three of the six disciplines. At the moment, Orozco and Leyva both fill that criteria, with Mikulak quickly closing in.