GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — Alex Naddour watched his buddies labor through one skittish pommel horse routine after another, none with any particular degree of precision or artistry.
The good vibes surrounding the somewhat patchwork U.S. men’s gymnastics team were gone. The seemingly comfy spot in the team finals and the automatic spot in next summer’s Olympics suddenly didn’t quite feel so comfy.
Naddour, the rare American who seems to actually enjoy the 45 seconds of lactic acid torture that is the pommel horse, smiled. This is kind of his thing.
“Some guys when they feel the pressure, they get tight,” Naddour said. “For me, I look at each guy in the eyes and I tell myself I’m not going to mess up, I’m going to do it for all these guys right here.”
Sliding from one side of the horse to the other with a controlled flair rare for an American, Naddour calmly put together a routine that cemented a trip to Rio next August and allowed the U.S. men’s program to exhale.
The six-man group missing Olympic veterans Sam Mikulak, Jake Dalton and John Orozco finished qualifying in fifth place with a total of 350.322. The Americans will be joined in the finals and by Japan, China, Britain, Russia, Switzerland, Brazil and South Korea.
The U.S. officially moved on after Naddour posted a passport-punching 15.266 on pommels, the final routine on the final rotation that capped an uneven but gritty performance.
“I love a good fight,” Chris Brooks said.
Good thing, because the U.S. was in one for much of the afternoon.
Rising star Donnell Whittenburg battled a cold and a series of wobbles, including a memorable brawl with the parallel bars where his massive arms nearly turned one of the poles into splinters as he tried to hold on.
The resilient Brooks, added to the team when Mikulak sprained an ankle a few weeks ago, tried to ignore the searing pain in his left shoulder when not serving as the de facto cheerleader.
Danell Leyva, a bronze medalist in the all-around at the 2012 Olympics, showed extended flashes of the brilliance that has appeared only occasionally since his triumph in London three years ago while earning a spot in the all-around final.
It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t always pretty. That can wait until Rio. This was about survival for a team minus some vital parts from the group that captured bronze at worlds a year ago. Yet the U.S. survived to remain firmly in the pack behind front-runners China and Japan.
The top of the podium is likely out of reach. That third step, however, remains in sight. Three days after a sloppy training session, one that included Paul Ruggeri laughing in frustration during his floor exercise, the U.S. regrouped.
They’ve been doing this long enough to know the difference between a tough day and a bad one. It’s why national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika didn’t feel the need for a pep talk.
They do their best gymnastics when they’re not too tight,” Mazeika said. “I don’t micromanage that. I let them be themselves.”
The Americans looked loose, breezing through still rings and vault before things started to get shaky.
Brooks’ bum shoulder kept him from making the lift he needed on parallel bars, and his 12.933 put the U.S. in the need of a big score to offset it.
Enter Leyva was the world champion in the event back in 2011, when he was a teenager. Not anymore. The 23-year-old remains a work in progress, but his athletically aggressive set produced a 15.633.
Twenty minutes later Leyva was at it again, soaring over the high bar in what is the gymnastics version of the half-pipe, a series of turns and daring flips that seems to connect with Leyva’s inner showman. He drilled his landing and received a massive hug from stepfather and coach Yin Alvarez.
Leyva’s 15.566 was the highest of the meet and the highlight of an all-around total that put him fourth overall and placed him in the premier group with Japan’s incomparable Kohei Uchimura for the all-around finals on Friday.
It wasn’t the best and that’s what I needed,” Leyva said. “I need to have something to look forward to. I need to know I didn’t do my best.”
A sentiment echoed by the rest of a team that will have to find a way past Russia and the rapidly improving Brits if it wants to find its way onto the medal stand Wednesday.
It’s telling that the group which has spoken incessantly about its depth since London needed it more than ever. The highest U.S. score on each event was spread among five different gymnasts, and Leyva, Naddour, Whittenburg, Brooks and Brandon Wynn all advanced to at least one event final.
The chase for individual glory can wait. For now they’ll settle for a mix of relief and guarded optimism.
“We did our job today, we’re going to Rio,” Whittenburg said. “But we still have more jobs ahead of us.”
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