Back-to-back medal failure for Mikulak, U.S. gymnasts

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Sam Mikulak competes on the pommel horse Monday.

Rio de Janeiro —  They said it would be different this time.

“Just because we went through this four years ago,” said Sam Mikulak, the star of the U.S. men’s gymnastics team and a former NCAA champion at Michigan.

But Monday afternoon at the Rio Olympic Arena, they went through it all over again. And the end result — another early pratfall on the mat that put the Americans’ medal hopes down for the count — left Mikulak and his teammates standing in the same place they began this Olympic cycle. Off the podium, lamenting what could’ve been.

“It feels different, because we trained harder for it, we put our hearts into this,” said Mikulak, the 23-year-old California native who led the Wolverines to back-to-back NCAA titles in 2013-14. “And we felt like we had a chance heading into it.”

But a shaky start once again doomed the U.S. men and they could not recover, tumbling from a second-place qualification Saturday to a fifth-place finish in Monday’s team final. It’s a nearly identical result to their 2012 London Olympic showing, and after winning silver in 2004 and bronze in 2008, the U.S. men now have been shut out of a team medal at consecutive Olympics.

Japan, the reigning world champions, won the gold Monday, while Russia barely edged China — the defending Olympic champs — for the silver. Great Britain was fourth.

Saturday had been about “setting a tone” for the Americans. And unlike in London, where the U.S. men qualified in first place — a bit of a shocker for an inexperienced squad — and then came unglued in the finals, he insisted this time the Americans would keep their composure.

Mikulak, one of three holdovers from that 2012 Olympic team, led the team in qualifying over the weekend, as the Americans placed second behind China this time around.

But those scores are wiped clean for the final, which uses a three-up, three-count scoring format, leaving the gymnasts almost no room for error. One bad routine can — and often does — cost a team a medal. Monday’s start list didn’t cut the U.S. any slack, either, as they completed their routines at the same time as Japan and Brazil, the host nation backed by a loud partisan crowd.

Whether it was the noise or the nerves, the Americans looked jittery — again — at the outset. Alex Naddour went first on the floor exercise and fell awkwardly. Then Mikulak, who’d performed well enough on the floor in Saturday’s qualifying to make the event final, followed with a shaky routine of his own, stepping out of bounds — twice.

So after one rotation, the U.S. men found themselves in eighth place in an eight-team final.

The pommel horse — a glaring weakness in qualifying — was up next, and the U.S. again had some struggles, though Mikulak, who competed in five of six rotations, managed to stay on the horse Monday. And they actually finished with the third-best team score of the day on the apparatus.

Still, halfway through the competition, the U.S. was sitting in seventh place, well off the podium and leading only a Ukrainian team that essentially forfeited Monday by sending up two gymnasts on four of the six rotations.

“But from the (third rotation) on, it was just an absolute blast,” Mikulak said.

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A strong showing on the vault, led by Mikulak’s 15.466 score and the fist-pumping celebration that followed — “I just started screaming, trying to pump everyone up,” he said — provided a spark, moving the U.S. ahead of Germany. And Mikulak again set the tone on the parallel bars with a big 15.7 score and another primal scream that had the Americans riled up.

But as fun as that rally seemed, China was making an even bigger move. And after five rotations, the U.S. — though just behind Great Britain for fourth — was nearly 2 full points out of third place.

“Looking up at the scores, I knew it would be a near-impossible thing to get a medal,” Naddour said.

And when Danell Leyva fell off the high bar as the third American in the final rotation — he’s the reigning world silver medalist on that apparatus — whatever faint hopes there were for a podium finish were gone.

A familiar feeling was all that was left. London recalling, if you will.

So what now?

While the U.S. women have become the dominant force in gymnastics, the lone medal in London four years ago for the American men was a bronze medal from Leyva in the individual all-around final. Mikulak will get his chance in the all-around here Wednesday, and he’ll also compete in event finals on the floor exercise and high bar over the next week.

But in the bigger picture, Mark Williams, the U.S. men’s coach here in Rio, acknowledges structural changes need to be made.

Cuts at the collegiate level certainly have hurt men’s gymnastics. But it’s obvious the system in place for the women’s national team has played a big part in the U.S. success. It’s built around a more-centralized program run by the Karolyis — first Bela, the legendary coach of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, and then wife Martha, who says she’s retiring after these Olympics at the age of 73.

Replicating that won’t be easy, though inroads have been made with more men's gymnasts spending time at the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs the past couple years. But if they really want things to be different, this result in Rio — same time, same placement — should be the catalyst.