U.S. men fall in gymnastics medal chase
BY JIM LITKE AP Sports Columnist
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
7/31/12 at 4:40 AM
LONDON - The plan was to keep it close until their last routine on the high bar. That's where those things Americans like to think they still do better than anybody else in the world - invent stuff, take risks and show off - were supposed to finally deliver some golden dividends.
Instead, by the time the high-flying U.S. men's team arrived there Monday night, it wasn't close enough to matter. They'd long ago been tripped up by the pommel horse, the most pedestrian piece of equipment in gymnastics, a 4-foot-tall, 5-foot-long beast of burden they haven't learned how to ride for nearly three decades and counting.
"There's no explaining it. I've only been around so long, so I don't know the whole history," John Orozco said after the U.S. contingent finished a disappointing fifth. "We've been trying to get better. That's all we can do."
"I'm just really proud of the guys. We struggled, but we continued to show what this team is about," said team captain Jonathan Horton, a former OU gymnast. "We have this never-stop-fighting attitude and that's exactly what we did. We never stopped fighting in this competition. Deep down in my heart I believe we are a great team."
Horton and OU senior Jake Dalton each have one more competition remaining at the Olympics, in the individual event finals. Dalton competes in the floor exercise at 8 a.m. Aug. 5, while Horton will defend his 2008 silver medal in the high bar at 9:40 a.m. Aug. 7.
But two years of talk about how this U.S. squad was ready to climb in the saddle and hang with the sport's big boys - the Chinese and Japanese, not coincidentally, the gold and silver medalists here - turned out to be just that. Talk.
The bronze medal the Americans won at last year's world championships and the first-place finish in qualifying just two days ago seem long, long ago.
The meet was all of 15 minutes old when the three U.S. team members moved over from the floor exercise mat to the horse, and soon enough, two of them wished they hadn't. Orozco and Danell Leyva wrestled for the biggest share of the blame afterward.
Leyva went first, picking up too much speed as he worked his way from one end toward the other, spinning off the horse like a bad rodeo rider.
Orozco, it turned out, was actually too good at hanging on. He, too, was making his way across the horse when he inadvertently plopped his butt down in the middle of the routine. The U.S. men were fourth heading into the rotation; eighth out of eight teams coming out.
"There's nothing we could have really done differently," said Sam Mikulak, whose performance was sandwiched between those two. "We're a young team. We've never experienced anything like this before."
Like his teammates, Mikulak was only too eager to own up for the failure.
"There are so many other things," Mikulak said. "I fell on floor. I made a mistake on floor, didn't have the best vault of my life. This is a team. There's no one person who can screw it all up."
U.S. coach Kevin Mazeika acknowledged afterward he might have been caught looking ahead.
"We thought the order was going to shake out very good for us. We're almost always phenomenal on the high bar," he said.
And so they were again.
Orozco led off, and throwing himself around with abandon, posted a 15.33. Captain Jon Horton, the old man of the squad at 26, followed with another sizzling routine, highlighted by three straight flips over the bar. He then stuck his landing, saluted a handful of U.S. flags in the crowd and hugged assistant coach Tom Meadows, who's trained him almost without interruption since Horton was 6. Leyva topped both of those shows with a scintillating 15.86.
It was wonderful stuff, precisely what the Americans had promised.
Unfortunately, it was also way too late.
Jacob Dalton of the U.S. performs on the rings during the men's team gymnastics finals Monday in London. JULIE JACOBSON / Associated Press
U.S. gymnast Danell Leyva is comforted by teammate Jonathan Horton at the end of the men’s team final on Monday in London. MATT DUNHAM / Associated Press