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As soon as tonight’s men’s competition was complete, I sent a text message to my brother that said, “I think these guys can win Olympic gold.”  The only problem is, I’m still not sure exactly which five guys they will be.

 

This was unquestionably the best men’s national championships I’ve ever seen…EVER.

 

Do you remember when the men’s program committee was trying to come up with all sorts of ways to get the American men to throw more difficult vaults…adding special bonus points for highly rated vaults, adding bonus points for doing two vaults, etc?  Well now they’re going to be leaving several of the best vaults in the world at home this summer.  In tonight’s meet, we saw a stunning Yurchenko double pike from David Sender, a near-perfect handspring front double pike from Chris Brooks, a landed Dragulescu from Steve Lengendre and an attempted one from Brandon Wynn, Kasamatsu double fulls from Sam Mikulak and Jake Dalton, and four different half-on handspring front double fulls off – from Paul Ruggeri, Alex Buscaglia, Josh Dixon, and Eddie Penev.  NINE guys scored above a 16 on this event – pretty incredible from a team that used to be relatively weak on this event compared to the other top teams in the world.

 

Do you remember when the U.S. couldn’t find three guys who could hit a decent pommel horse routine, and considered themselves lucky to hit a 14 in world competition?  Tonight, exactly TEN guys scored a 14 or higher on pommel horse, and five of them scored a 14.65 or higher.  Glen Ishino put up a huge 15.45.

 

And do you remember when Paul Hamm was the only American man capable of challenging the world’s best in the all-around?  Tonight, FIVE men scored over a 90 in the all-around – a score that would easily challenge for the Olympic all-around medal podium this summer.  Danell Leyva and John Orozco nearly broke a 92.

 

There are so many more aspects of tonight’s competition I was blown away by…ELEVEN guys scoring above a 15 on floor, NINE guys scoring above a 15 on p-bars, and FIVE guys scoring above a 15 on rings, for starters.

 

The all-around race itself is as close as it could possibly be, with Leyva edging Orozco by just 0.05.  And it was fantastic to see so many of our very top all-arounders hit six for six under the enormous pressure of the national championships in the Olympic year – Leyva, Orozco, Brooks, Horton, and Dalton all essentially escaped the first day of competition unscathed. although Horton did count an extra swing on p-bars and there were some form breaks here and there from several of the guys that can be cleaned up.  But overall the hit percentage was enormous, and so was the difficulty level.  Typically, the guys tend to do even better on Day 2.

 

The biggest surprise of the meet was unquestionably Sam Mikulak.  We’ve all had him tentatively on our lists of Olympic contenders – at least in a “dark horse” role – recognizing his potential but a bit unsure how he would handle the pressure of the Olympic selection process when he was actually thrown into it.  Mikulak was absolutely sensational in tonight’s competition, and in fact, had he not fallen on his triple full dismount on floor, he would have been right up there with Leyva and Orozco in the hunt for the lead.  I think many of us expected he could possibly be a top six player here, but I would seriously doubt that ANYONE would have predicted this.  He did so well here that I think many fans – and likely selection committee members – are beginning to seriously consider possible Olympic team scenarios with him in it.

 

Where exactly Mikulak fits in is a little unclear – not because he doesn’t have strengths that the team needs, but because he has an interesting mix of strong events but isn’t necessarily an obvious top-three gymnast on any single event.  Mikulak is clearly one of the best tumblers and vaulters in the field, but surprised many by putting up a super 15.6 on p-bars (9.4 execution score!) – the 2nd highest of the field – as well as a 14.65 on pommel horse – the 4th highest of the field.  With a very strong 15.3 on high bar mixed in as well, there’s no question that Mikulak is a potential contributor on multiple events.  But does this make him an Olympic team member, or a great Olympic alternate?  We’ll have to see more competitions before we decide that.

 

For now, suffice it to say that Mikulak is officially in the mix and just threw a wrench into this Olympic team selection.  How far he goes is yet to be determined, but whatever he did to prepare himself for tonight’s competition, I sure hope he does it again on Saturday.

 

I’d say Chris Brooks was the other pleasant surprise of tonight’s meet.  I shouldn’t say “surprise” because we all know how good Chris Brooks is – but this was unquestionably the meet of his life.  Not only did he hit six for six, but he put up one of his best rings scores ever (14.95) and landed his first ever handspring double pike on vault in a competition – becoming the first American to ever successfully compete this skill and one of the very few in the world.  Like Mikulak, Brooks is now officially right in the thick of things, but whether it’s as an alternate or as a team member is still unclear.  It certainly would help Brooks to show what he is fully capable of on p-bars and high bar, as we’ve seen him score higher than the 15.2 and 15.15 he put up here.

 

Jake Dalton might not have appeared to be a star in tonight’s meet, placing 6th all-around and with just one top three finish on floor (2nd with a 15.8), but in my mind, he did exactly what he needed to do to maintain his Olympic spot.  He hit a strong 16 on vault, proved he can score nearly a point higher than most of our other top floor workers, and put up a near-15 on rings (14.8).  No other “bubble” gymnast can make all of those claims, and thus I’d say he still has the edge over Mikulak, Brooks, and Legendre.

 

Speaking of Steve Legendre, would we really throw away a 16.15 on floor?  He sure makes things difficult by putting up numbers like that, and landing his Dragulescu doesn’t make things any simpler either!  Legendre wouldn’t help on any other event but these two, but that floor score is essentially a full point higher than Leyva, Horton, and Orozco – and we’ll probably be needing to use two of these guys on floor in London.  Dalton can score almost as high, but Legendre’s 16 sure would help out a lot in the Olympic team finals, and this certainly keeps him at least in the discussion.

 

Glen Ishino did himself the biggest favor of his life by nailing a tremendous 15.45 on pommel horse and outscoring the field by 0.65.  If several other guys like Orozco, Leyva, and Mikulak continue to hit solid numbers on pommel horse, there will undoubtedly be potential scenarios that get thrown around that don’t include a pommel horse specialist at all – such as a team with both Mikulak and Dalton or Mikulak and Legendre, for example – to see if it might be worth getting a few more tenths on floor rather than on pommel horse.  But right now, I’d put this pommel horse score on the team for sure.  This team needs a true pommel horse swinger to be truly balanced and competitive with the Chinese and Japanese, and right now that is Glen Ishino.  Alex Naddour did a very nice job as well and put up a solid 14.75, but unfortunately we don’t yet know the status of his knee injury on vault.  I really hope this doesn’t take him out of the competition, and you’d like to think that even if it were a major knee injury he might still be able to compete a pommel horse routine.  I really want to see these two specialists continue to push each other throughout this process so we can see which one truly rises to the top.  For now, though, Glen Ishino appears to be tentatively holding an Olympic spot in his hands.

 

Right now I’d have to say that the numbers aren’t pointing towards including a rings specialist like Brandon Wynn or CJ Maestas, since Horton outscored both of them tonight and their scores aren’t quite high enough yet to justify kicking off Jake Dalton or Glen Ishino.  But we’ll see which direction these scores go on Saturday, as these guys are still certainly worth considering.

 

David Sender’s vault was absolutely spectacular and four of his events were quite impressive, but that rings score needed to be higher than a 14.75 to make him a serious threat for the team, and the 13.1 on floor certainly didn’t help him either.  I think he’s on the verge of making it to the Olympic Trials but isn’t a guarantee for that at this point.  On Day 2, I’d like to see him repeat that vault, hit his floor routine, and post a 15+ score on rings to stay in the Olympic mix.

 

That’s all for now.  What an incredible start to the 2012 U.S. Championships.  Team USA has never looked this good in my opinion, and I can’t wait to see what Saturday brings.

 

The women are next!