ST. LOUIS — Sam Mikulak, Jake Dalton and John Orozco are heading back to the Olympics. So are Alex Naddour and Chris Brooks. And this time, they won't be watching from the stands.
Naddour and Brooks, alternates on the 2012 men's gymnastics team, will join Mikulak, Dalton and Orozco in Rio de Janeiro in August after earning a spots on the U.S. team Saturday night.
Mikulak, a four-time national champion, easily posted the highest all-around score through four rounds of qualifying. He was followed by Brooks, at 29 the oldest competitor in the field. Brooks put together six more steady rotations Saturday night and finished the selection process without the kind of hiccups that have dogged him throughout his career.
Orozco returns to the Olympics as a specialist following a trying stretch that included the death of his mother and a second Achilles injury last year.
The Americans are still smarting from an ugly fifth-place finish in London four years ago, imploding in the final after easily topping qualifying. USA Gymnastics officials blamed part of the problem on fatigue and moved trials up two weeks from 2012 to give the team a bit of a breather before final preparations before Rio begin.
Though the committee combined the scores of nationals earlier this month and trials to try and get a big-picture view of the state of the program, the truth is the last month is really just the final steps in a lengthy selection process. The men's team has largely been static at the top since London, with Mikulak ripping off four straight national titles and the core group remaining intact during a run that included a team bronze at the 2014 worlds but also another fifth at 2015 world championships last fall, a meet Mikulak and Dalton both missed due to injury.
The U.S. will head to Rio at full strength, and with something resembling momentum. While Mikulak's spot seemed assured months ago, the group of 6-8 guys behind him are in some ways interchangeable — even Brooks admitted any combination would post a team score within a point either way —leaving the committee with a bevy of options. Officials stressed the biggest factor is consistency and who they can trust under the pressure of a three-up, three-count team final.
A plane ticket to Brazil there for the taking, the men did not shrink from the moment. If anything, they embraced it.
Outside of Mikulak's typical early meet flub — he slipped off high bar during the first rotation — glaring mistakes were few and far between. Brooks stayed on pommel horse, easily his weakest event, and surviving it intact seemed to energize him. When he drilled his high bar set, he screamed after sticking the landing.
Dalton, who maintained he could have competed in Glasgow despite a shoulder injury but instead was left off and underwent surgery instead, overcome a so-so performance in nationals. Naddour has long been the best American on pommel horse but has added solid skills elsewhere in hopes of making him more valuable.
The five celebrated under balloons, joining arms and clutching roses in celebration. Next stop: Rio.