ST. LOUIS (AP) — The selection committee putting together the U.S. men’s Olympic gymnastics team can probably put pencil to paper and write Sam Mikulak‘s name down.
A dry erase board might be a better option while trying to figure out who else will be on the five-man team in Rio de Janeiro.
Mikulak, a four-time national champion, overcame another typically sloppy start to top the leaderboard at the opening night of Olympic Trials on Thursday. Even after botching his dismount on parallel bars and getting crossed up on high bar, his total of 90.650 was still easily best in the field.
Though his spot when the team is unveiled on Saturday night is all but secure, Mikulak isn’t exactly thrilled. He’s spent most of the last four years just a touch above the rest of the Americans. A far sterner test awaits in Brazil, and Mikulak knows it.
“I think I’ve done this too many times and that’s why I’m upset with it,” Mikulak said. “I like to seem to dig myself a hole and build my way back.”
There won’t be nearly as much wiggle room in Rio.
“That’s why I’m upset with myself tonight,” Mikulak said. “I made two major mistakes tonight and that’s never going to fly in international competition. And that’s my goal, to be an international gymnast.”
The Olympic team will be announced after Saturday night’s final (broadcast schedule), with the panel taking into account the performances from the national championships earlier this month and the trials when putting the squad together.
There’s a path for the top two all-around finishers to secure an automatic berth, but the reality is Mikulak appears to be the only lock. His total through three days of 272.150 is more than three points clear of Chris Brooks at 269.025 and nearly five more than Jake Dalton‘s third-place total of 267.325.
Brooks, at 29 the oldest competitor in the 18-man field, backed up a solid showing at nationals with an 89.175 on Thursday, avoiding major mistakes and providing a pretty compelling argument that he should join Mikulak. Brooks ended his night with an emphatic fist pump after surviving pommel horse without slipping off in an event that’s tormented him for years.
“Just relief to get off the horse and not hear ’30 seconds (to get back on after falling),'” Brooks said. “That’s the best feeling ever.”
One that could be topped if Brooks — an Olympic alternate four years ago — hears his name called on Saturday night. Not that Brooks is getting ahead of himself. Healthy — well, as healthy as can be expected after more than two decades of competition — Brooks is hardly fading into the twilight.
“This is my last shot at an Olympic team,” Brooks said. “(It’s) the will to not come off of anything, the will to prepare, taking everything unto my own control and leaving no stone unturned.”
Piecing the puzzle together will not be easy. The core group that has spent portions of the last four years adrift after a disappointing fifth-place finish in London spent the first night of trials providing a reminder of how deep the Americans can be when they’re on, never a guarantee.
Danell Leyva, whose star seemed to be on the rise after capturing bronze in the all-around in 2012 — the only medal won by the men’s program — headed into trials in 16th place thanks in part to a shaky couple of days at nationals that came with his left leg recovering from a series of dog bites sustained while trying to break up a fight.
Yet he looked very much like the dynamic performer he was in London, finishing third behind Mikulak and Brooks, highlighted by a 15.6 on parallel bars and a 15.2 on high bar the left his stepfather/coach Yin Alvarez doing his signature sprinting fist pump around the arena.
“I want to be the guy they’re like, ‘He’s on the team for sure,'” Leyva said. “I think that’s what Sam is doing, and that’s what I want to do as well.”
Leyva’s resiliency put him back in the mix along with some other familiar names.
John Orozco, the 2012 national champion who has spent the interim since London dealing with a series of injuries and the loss of his mother, put up the highest score on high bar. Dalton, left off the 2015 World Championships team after missing Nationals due to injury, was first on vault and second on floor.
Alex Naddour‘s world-class pommel horse set — his 15.650 edged Mikulak’s total — makes him a particularly valuable asset and his focus on becoming more versatile is paying off. Naddour wound up second on still rings and fifth on vault on Thursday, proof he can fill in capably on multiple events if asked to go to Rio. While stressing “the selection committee has a tough job” Naddour does have a bit of advice heading into the weekend.
“I’d tell them to look at the scores and do their homework,” he said. “If they do their homework and they put the right team out there, guys who can relate to each other, guys who can count on each other, that may not be the highest scores on paper, that’s the team I want … I think that’s what they want to.”