U.S. men’s gymnastics stars enter Olympic Trials as underdogs

Danell Leyva
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Danell Leyva and John Orozco were anchors of the U.S. men’s gymnastics team four years ago. They’re outliers going into the Olympic Trials this week.

Leyva and Orozco stand 16th and 10th in the all-around standings after the P&G Championships three weeks ago, the first of two Olympic selection meets. It has been 64 years since more than two U.S. men’s gymnasts competed in back-to-back Games.

That streak will endure if Leyva and Orozco don’t perform better in St. Louis on Thursday and Saturday (broadcast schedule here).

The five-man Olympic team will be named on Sunday.

One man appears a lock at this point — London Olympian Sam Mikulak, who won his fourth straight U.S. all-around title at the P&G Championships.

His supporting cast is still to be determined by a selection committee this weekend, taking into account results from the P&G Championships and Olympic Trials, among other discretionary criteria.

Chris Brooks, a 2012 Olympic alternate, and veteran Olympian and Worlds team member Jacob Dalton were second and third in the all-around at the P&G Championships.

Paul Ruggeri III, a three-time Worlds alternate who made his Worlds debut in 2015, tied for eighth in the all-around at P&Gs but goes into the Olympic Trials with added value, ranked in the top three on three of the six events.

Donnell Whittenburg, the only American to make both of the last two World Championships all-around finals, led the all-around halfway through the P&G Championships. But he fell to a tie for fifth after 12 routines in Hartford three weeks ago.

Much farther behind were Leyva and Orozco, who struggled not just in Hartford but throughout this Olympic cycle.

Leyva, a 24-year-old Miami native and the 2012 Olympic all-around bronze medalist, has finished no higher than fifth in the all-around at the last four P&G Championships.

He competed in Hartford with his left leg fully wrapped after one of his family’s American bulldogs bit him multiple times for the second time in four years earlier this spring.

Leyva also showed up in Hartford without his lucky towel, the famous blue one with stars, that he toted at every gymnastics meet since 2007. That was stolen in February.

“I don’t mind being the underdog,” Leyva said after finishing 16th in Hartford, where he fell off the high bar, went out of bounds on floor exercise and mangled a pommel horse dismount. “I wasn’t trying to be perfect here. You’ve got to be perfect in Rio.”

Orozco, a 23-year-old from the Bronx and the 2012 U.S. all-around champion, suffered a torn left ACL and associated meniscus damage in a post-Olympic USA Gymnastics tour in October 2012.

He rebounded to finish second in the all-around at the 2014 P&G Championships and looked set to be a 2016 Olympic team favorite.

But then June 15, 2015 happened. Orozco tore his right Achilles for the second time in five years and was told by a doctor he would be out about one year.

He cut that estimate in half, which is why he wasn’t worried about trailing going into this week’s Olympic Trials. Rather, Orozco felt fortunate to be healthy enough to compete in all six events in Hartford.

“I honestly don’t feel any pressure at all [about my Olympic team chances],” Orozco said after the P&G Championships, where he fell off the pommel horse on the first day. “I’m still not there, which is OK, because at trials is where I want to peak.”

MORE: Full NBC Olympic trials broadcast schedule

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated Paul Ruggeri III is the only man ranked in the top three of three of six events after the P&G Championships. Both Ruggeri and Jacob Dalton are ranked in the top three of three of six events.