Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

2012 Olympics

July 28, 2012

U.S. cruises to lead in men’s gymnastics qualifying

LONDON — The Americans have insisted for months they can contend for the Olympic title in men’s gymnastics.

Another night like this, and they won’t need to say a word. The color of their medals will do all the talking for them.

While perennial gymnastics powerhouses China and Japan bobbled and wobbled their way through qualifying Saturday, the Americans proved they’ve got the big skills to back up their big hopes. They didn’t count a single fall, and their final score of 275.342 is almost three points ahead of surprising Britain.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make it finish like that,” team captain Jonathan Horton said. “I was actually joking ... earlier, ’Can we just get the medals now?’ But we’ve got one more day to go, and we’re pumped about it.”

The team final is Monday. Since 2000, when scoring began starting anew in the final, only one first-day winner has failed to finish atop the podium.

Japan, the heavy favorite coming into the meet, is third (270.503) after several uncharacteristic errors by three-time world champion Kohei Uchimura. Defending Olympic champion China, which also has won the last five world titles, is fourth (269.985) after its splat-filled day.

“We studied a lot about the American team already,” said Japanese coach Yasunori Tachibana, who sent a scouting party to last month’s Olympic trials. “So we knew it was going to be pretty tough.”

Germany and Russia compete later Saturday.

Unlike qualifying, when teams get to drop their lowest score, there will be no margin of error in Monday’s final. Teams compete three gymnasts on each event, and all three scores count. Botch one routine, and it could be the difference between going home with a gold medal or just a souvenir T-shirt.

But the Americans believe they’re actually better built for that high-risk, high-reward formula, and this performance will only fuel their confidence that they can join Bart Conner and his Golden Gang of ’84 as the only U.S. teams to win the Olympic title.

Danell Leyva and John Orozco posted the highest individual scores, and the team had the highest total on floor exercise and high bar. They had only three falls the entire day, and counted only four scores below 15. Every American — Leyva, Orozco, Horton, Jake Dalton and Sam Mikulak — is in the running to make at least one individual final.

“Now is when everyone is finally, completely realizing how much we believe in it and today was definite huge proof of that,” Leyva said.

The day didn’t look so promising at the start, when Horton went spinning off pommel horse, his — and the team’s — worst event. But the Americans have an unshakable belief in themselves, and they barely blinked at the miscue. Mikulak, Leyva and Orozco followed with stylish sets more typical of the Japanese or Chinese, and wound up finishing their toughest event in decent shape.

After slowly closing the gap on each event, the Americans finally took the lead with one high bar routine more dazzling than the next.

Orozco set the tone, getting such great air on his release moves he could almost make eye contact with the folks hanging out on the first concourse. Horton was up next. He’s been struggling on high bar the last few months, but there was no cover-your-eyes-and-hide-the-children scariness this time. Once, twice, three times he tossed himself up and over the bar, flipping and twisting before coming down and easily grabbing it.

When his feet hit the mat with a solid thud, he pumped his fists and smiled.

“I jumped up there, man on a mission-type thing,” said Horton, who stood at the edge of the podium after and popped his uniform so everyone could see the “U-S-A” across his chest. “I was really aggressive. I caught all my releases really well — my last one was just kind of finger-tipped.”

Leyva closed the show, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd with his big release moves. When he did a little hop while in a handstand, the audience actually laughed. He let out a roar when he landed his dismount, and his energetic stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, let loose with a round of his trademark rhythmic clapping.

With more than a point lead over the British, the Americans let loose on floor exercise. An admiring murmur rippled through the crowd when Leyva, balancing on his hands, pulled his legs up and over his head so his knees touched his nose. When he finished, Alvarez yelled, “That was super good!”

Dalton capped it off with a routine that rivals all others for power and elegance. He actually looked as if he might go out of bounds on one tumbling run, but had the presence to pulls his toes back, almost as if he was retracting them back into his feet.

“It was kind of an exclamation point to end the day,” Mazeika said.

The O2 Arena — where American flags, T-shirts and signs seemed to be everywhere — erupted in applause when the final scores were posted. The U.S. men looked up from their huddle and noted the marks with a few fist pumps.

“We definitely can carry on the confidence,” Mikulak said. “We just want to stay humbled to make sure we go out and perform to the best of our ability.”

The Japanese, meanwhile, need to figure out how they got so far off track.

Normally so graceful and precise that coaches use DVDs of their routines as teaching tools, the Japanese looked disoriented. Kazuhito Tanaka made four big errors in his first three events, including a botch on high bar that left him wildly swinging one-handed, like a child on the monkey bars.

Uchimura’s performance was downright baffling. The only man to win three world titles has been so sublime since winning the silver medal in Beijing that Germany’s Philipp Boy, runner-up at worlds the last two years, has joked he was born in the “wrong age.” That Uchimura would cement his status as the greatest gymnast ever with the all-around title was all but a given.

But he fell on high bar, not even getting close on a release move. He then spun off pommel horse, getting up with a baffled look. He rallied from there, however, and wound up fourth in the individual scoring.

“I think more or less we all were thinking about how China was doing today, so it might have affected our performance,” Uchimura said through a translator.

The Chinese have run roughshod over the gymnastics world for much of the last decade. But Chen Yibing and Zou Kai are the only holdovers from the Beijing gold rush, and China is no longer in a class by itself.

China’s air of invincibility took its first hit at last year’s world championships, where the Chinese finished behind Japan and the United States in qualifying. Yes, it was only qualifying, and they still left the event as they always do — with index fingers held high in the air and gold medals around their neck. But it was the first time since Athens that they failed to finish first in every phase of a major competition.

A reduction in team size, from six gymnasts in Beijing to five in London, hurt the Chinese even more. After building their team around one- or two-event specialists for so many years, they’ve been left with gaping holes in their lineups.

What hurt the Chinese most Saturday was simple sloppiness — shocking for a team once known for its impeccable execution. Chen’s parallel bars routine wouldn’t cut it for a high school gymnast. Zou Kai, the reigning gold medalist on high bar, probably won’t even make the final after a routine that was almost indifferent. Guo Weiyang, pressed into service Wednesday after 2004 pommel horse gold medalist Teng Haibin dropped out with an arm injury, fell on his face on his dismount on floor exercise.

“We’re not really disappointed because it’s been four years and the competitors are improving, there’s less discrepancy in their level,” Chen said through a translator. “We are still confident in the final.”

 

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