The year after the Olympic Games is not exactly a year of respite. (When your typical workout day lasts between four and six hours, respite seems a rather rich word to use.) But if you’re going to take it a little bit easy while preparing for the intense, multi-year tornado that is the run-up to the next Olympics, the year after the Games is the one to do it.
Especially if you’re already an Olympian. Summiting that mountain a second time in a country like the U.S. will never be easy, but if you’re going to make a second (or third) attempt, it must be nice to know you’ve already done it once and survived. But never mind about the respite — in this, the year after the Games when everyone’s supposed to be chilling (especially if you competed in the last Olympics), all five members of the 2012 U.S. men’s team are planning to compete at this year’s U.S. Championships, which gets underway in Hartford, Conn. this week. So are two of the three Olympic team alternates.
The 2010 U.S. Championships were held in Hartford too, and many of the gymnasts competing here already have memories of the SuperDome. It was the beginning of Danell Leyva’s ascension, for example — though he had been dreaming and talking about being the top senior in the nation for years at that point, it wasn’t until 2010 that he came into his own. Though Jonathan Horton beat him for the title, it was obvious that Leyva was the next guy, that he would continue to improve.
2010 was also the first year that John Orozco was a threat as a senior, coming off of three consecutive junior national titles. But Orozco tore his Achilles tendon vaulting a double-twitsing Yurchenko and spent the better part of the next year recuperating. It was the year that Sam Mikulak, who had placed second all-around to Orozco all those years in the junior division, finally won a Junior National title of his own. In the mixed zone, the new Junior National champion emphasized the merit of resting, of not burning yourself out.
His strategy would pan out especially well for him — of all the men who made the Olympic team, going into the 2012 selection process Mikulak was the freshest and most relaxed athlete, on the podium and in the mixed zone, in spite of the stress of being less than a year removed from two fractured ankles. The wages of rest, indeed.
In spite of this, all five members of the Olympic team — plus two of the three replacement athletes — will line up for a second go-round in Hartford, trying to get on the shortlist of People To Watch In Rio. (Replacement athlete Chris Brooks is still on the national team but not on the roster.)
Things have changed in a year — Horton, who recently became a father for the first time, has said that he will make a “last second” decision about competing, while 2012 U.S. champ Orozco tore his ACL on the post-Olympic tour and is not ready on vault or floor. Unlike last year, a showdown with Leyva, who never stopped training and didn’t do the post-Olympic tour, won’t happen.
Leyva himself, while still utterly devoted to the Olympic dream, has seemed something less than himself in competition lately. In smoothing out the wrinkles on new skills, he’s made mistakes and appeared not quite 100 percent physically, though his fierce competitive spirit is completely intact. The most likely people to challenge him for the U.S. all-around title is probably American Cup champion Jake Dalton, an all-arounder who, like so many American gymansts, relies on excelling on floor, vault and rings to make up for his deficiencies on the pommel horse, and Mikulak, a truly balanced gymnast who has worked hard to make sure he’s not at a disadvantage on pommel horse.
Where the rest of the field is likely to fall is something of a question mark. 2013 may not be a true year of respite, but it is a year of reshuffling. With that in mind, here are a few more names to watch for in the men’s category:
Steven Legendre (University of Oklahoma): Certainly the most talented tumbler/vaulter the U.S. has ever seen, Texas-bred Legendre is more or less a six-event gymnast (again, pommel horse) who has flown the U.S. colors in floor and vault finals at more World Cups and World Championship meets than you can count. His strength has always been in his difficulty, which is usually comparable to the best in the world. His weakness has always been his form, which is not.
Alex Naddour (USA Youth Fitness Center): Naddour stands out as one of the few U.S. men who are best on pommel horse. Though it didn’t quite lift him onto the Olympic team last year, it does mean he has a good shot at making future teams. In Hartford, he has a good shot as an all-arounder due not only to his non-weakness on horse, but to his excellent rings, parallel bars and high bar routines.
Paul Ruggeri (U.S. Gymnastics Development Center II): A six event gymnast who has only gotten better since his breakout year in 2010, when he was named first alternate to the World team. With a new coaching team in place this year and exciting new skills on floor, Ruggeri could wind up as the big surprise of the Championships, a gymnast whose time has finally come.
Akash Modi (Monmouth): A senior fresh out of the box, Modi is unusual in that he’s not terribly strong on floor or vault but potentially fills holes on the other four events, with exceptionally strong skills on pommel horse, rings and parallel bars, where his full-twisting double tuck dismount comes at you from out of nowhere. Once upon a time his form was not ideal, but he’s been working hard on making corrections.
Eddie Penev (Stanford): The former World floor finalist (he competed for Bulgaria before switching nationalities in 2012) is so experienced but still so young and one of the most promising gymnasts on the national team. Floor and vault are his best events, which unfortunately puts him in a crowd with Dalton, Mikulak, Legendre, Ruggeri and Dixon.
Josh Dixon (USOTC): Known for his excellent form and great height on floor and vault, Dixon made headlines off the mat by coming out just before the 2012 Olympic Trials, and since then Dixon has trained and competed like a weight has been lifted from his chest.
Adrian de los Angeles (University of Michigan): The talented de los Angeles made a statement at the Winter Classic (a.k.a. Winter Nationals) when he led after the first day of competition. He’s been pegged as one of the gymnasts most likely to have a breakout year in 2013, and a strong finish at the U.S. Championships would help him achieve that.
Sean Melton (USOTC): A fresh young athlete with skills beyond his years, you can’t count Melton out in this meet.
Donnell Whittenburg (USOTC): The 2012 Junior National Champion’s gymnastics is that of a seasoned veteran, not a fresh-faced newcomer. Perhaps the most explosive, powerful gymnast in the field (and that’s saying something), Whittenburg, who competed at the Mexican Open late last year, has the chance to make a name for himself in Hartford.
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