Another Olympic year is about to arrive…can you feel it?

While the numerous silver and bronze medals the U.S. men have won over the past decade have been a tremendous improvement over their team medal drought of the 1990’s, this team has for nearly 30 years been chasing another golden moment like the historic one it experienced in Los Angeles in 1984 – although those Games were slightly tainted by the boycott of the Soviet Union.  Current stars like 2008 Olympic medalist and 2010 world all-around bronze medalist Jonathan Horton and 2011 national champion and 2011 world parallel bars champion Danell Leyva have helped put the U.S. men back on the medal podium, but no team in the world has been able to beat the Chinese men in world competition since 2004.  Could the potential comeback of former Olympic champion Paul Hamm be the edge the U.S. men need to accomplish this feat?  Do they have the talent to possibly even do it without him?


As the year 2012 begins in a couple of days, so does the official seven-month stretch towards London.  Under today’s subjective selection procedures, which rely heavily on reputation and track record, every competition during the Olympic year will be critical.  Competitions like the upcoming Winter Cup, American Cup, Pacific Rim Championships, and the entire NCAA season will all help set the table for the primary Olympic selection competitions in June – the Visa Championships and Olympic Trials.


Although things can certainly change very quickly with injuries and competition results over the next few months, I’ve put together a list of the gymnasts I currently consider to be the top 12 contenders for the 2012 U.S. men’s Olympic team.  I’ve listed them – in order – below:


1.  Danell Leyva, the national all-around and world parallel bars champion.  After several years as a junior sensation and two years as primarily a two-event specialist, the now 20-year-old finally emerged as America’s best all-around gymnast in 2011, thanks to cleaner form and improved difficulty on nearly every event.  Now with a well-deserved world parallel bars title to add to his recent national crown, Leyva is armed with tremendous confidence heading into the Olympic year.  In addition to challenging for Olympic medals in the all-around, on parallel bars, and on high bar, Leyva will be expected to be a leader for Team USA as they attempt to give China and Japan a serious run for the Olympic team title.


2.  Jonathan Horton, the 2008 Olympic star and 2010 world all-around bronze medalist.  Now a veteran of multiple world championships and an Olympic Games, Horton has been one of the central figures in USA Gymnastics over the past six years.  During that time he has helped lead the Americans to team bronze medals at the 2008 Olympics and 2011 worlds, and has picked up some impressive individual medals for himself as well.  He’s proven himself to be an inspirational leader for the Americans, and there’s no doubt that his healthy rivalry with Danell Leyva over the past couple of years has not only pushed both of them to greater heights, but has also helped elevate the entire American team to a level closer to the Chinese and Japanese.  As he prepares for what will likely be his second Olympic experience, Horton can draw confidence from his stunning Olympic performance in Beijing and inspiration from the prospects of even greater success in London, where he hopes to turn his past Olympic silver and bronze into a golden one.


3.  John Orozco, the young phenom who reached world and Olympic caliber in 2011.  Considering his spectacular comeback from an Achilles tear less than a year prior, his uncanny sense of poise at the age of 18, his marked improvement on pommel horse while injured, and his absolutely brilliant performance at the world championships where he eclipsed all but Kohei Uchimura during the qualifications, it’s hard to pick what was most stunning about Orozco’s 2011.  His breathtaking skills, exquisite lines, and competitive composure placed him in a surprising leadership role for the Americans in Tokyo and also established him as a front-runner for the 2012 Olympic team.  If his current trajectory continues, he may be more than just a vital member of this U.S. Olympic team – he’ll be a serious threat for individual medals in London.


4.  Alex Naddour, the American pommel horse savior.  Some might be surprised to see him ranked so high on this list, but his strength on pommel horse and consistency in international competition on this event in the last two years has been exactly what Team USA has been looking for.  He’s a solid all-arounder as well (7th all-around at this year’s Visa Championships and 5th in the NCAA Championships), but it’s really his pommel horse score alone that landed him a spot on the 2011 world team and could very well place him on the 2012 Olympic team.  Although it’s possible that a gymnast like Paul Hamm could swoop in with a reliable 15+ score on pommel horse and potentially replace Naddour, as things stand right now, Naddour fits in quite nicely for Team USA.


5.  Jake Dalton, the floor and vault powerhouse who became an all-around threat in 2011.  Dalton clearly became one of America’s stars in 2011, with a big win at February’s Winter Cup, an impressive 3rd place finish at March’s American Cup, a 5th place finish at the Visa Championships, and a fantastic showing in his second world championships in Tokyo, including his first ever world floor final.  Although there was room for both Dalton and fellow Oklahoma Sooner Steve Legnedre on the six-man world squad for Tokyo, it’s going to be very difficult for both of these college teammates to be included on the five-member Olympic team, particularly considering neither of them are strong on pommel horse.  It’s almost a coin toss as far as which one has the edge between these two, but for now I’d give it to Dalton because his Tsuk triple full on vault has been more consistent than Legendre’s equally valued Dragulescu (handspring double front-half), and also because he is potentially a slightly better backup on a couple of other events like rings and parallel bars.


6.  Steve Legendre, the other floor and vault powerhouse who has made three consecutive world floor finals.  As stated above, Legendre’s biggest challenger for a spot on the 2012 Olympic team may very well be his own University of Oklahoma teammate, Jake Dalton.  In fact, both are so incredibly powerful and proven on floor and vault that it’s hard to imagine Team USA putting together a team without at least one of them.  Legendre has now proven himself in three consecutive world championships, making the world floor finals in London 2009, Rotterdam 2010, and Tokyo 2011.  His Dragulescu on vault is tremendous, but he’ll need to show more consistency on it to keep pace with Dalton’s more consistent Tsuk triple full.  Legendre will also need to continue to strengthen some of his other events, like rings, parallel bars, and even pommel horse, as these certainly won’t be ignored when the final decision is made about whether he wears a competition uniform or an alternate jacket in London next year.


7.  Brandon Wynn, the rings monster who also showed impressive versatility as an all-arounder in 2010.  It seems every quadrennium the U.S. has at least one “beast” who can put up a huge score on rings.  Between 2005 and 2008, that gymnast was Kevin Tan – who ended up on the 2008 Olympic team – and throughout the 2009-2012 cycle, that gymnast has been Brandon Wynn.  The selection committee did utilize Wynn’s superhuman strength for 2010 world team, but left him off the same squad in 2011 in favor of the young comeback kid, John Orozco, and the dynamic tumbling and vaulting duo of Legendre and Dalton.  In 2010 Wynn proved to be a very strong all-arounder as well by placing 3rd overall at the 2010 Visa Championships, but he was less consistent across all six events in 2011.  It will be very interesting to see how the new five-man squad affects Brandon Wynn’s chances, as he’ll likely need to show he can not only notch a guaranteed 16 on rings, but that he could contribute on a couple other events if needed as well.


8.  Chris Brooks, the longtime teammate of Horton’s who has shown the capacity to beat him.  Chris Brooks was the new “it” guy in USA men’s gymnastics in the early part of 2010, but serious problems with his ankles that summer left him in more of a supporting role on the world team in Rotterdam.  A year later, Brooks was just as impressive a gymnast, but didn’t quite have the strengths that Team USA needed and was placed as an alternate to the 2011 world team.  The same may be true next year, unfortunately, as Brooks particularly excels on parallel bars and high bar – events where Leyva, Horton, and Orozco are all likely to be used already – and is relatively weak on pommel horse, which doesn’t give him an edge over the other contenders.  In addition to proving he’s one of America’s three best on parallel bars and high bar, Brooks might need to step it up on events like floor, vault, and rings if he wants to land a spot on this five-member team.


9.  Paul Hamm, the former world and Olympic champion who remains a mystery at this point.  After having to bail on his initial comeback plans for this past year’s Winter Cup due to injury, failing to return at nationals as some anticipated, and then emerging as a shocking news story involving an embarrassing drunken run-in with the police, Paul Hamm is so much a wild card at this point that he could either shoot towards the top of this list or drop off of it altogether.  As things have settled a bit from his highly publicized arrest a few months ago, no new videos or tidbits have really surfaced regarding his current physical shape or competition plans.  Some rumors have circulated regarding him still planning to compete at the upcoming Winter Cup, but this is certainly not confirmed and is anyone’s guess at this point.  His gymnastics video footage that did surface in early 2011 was quite promising, however, and suggested he could potentially provide Team USA with a tremendous boost heading into London.  Hamm has the talent and competitive ability to provide game-changing scores on nearly every event.  The question will likely be whether his nearly 30-year-old body can sustain the necessary training to reach that point again, and also what impact his recently damaged reputation will have on his motivation, psychological state, and reception from fans.


10.  Paul Ruggeri, the floor, vault, and high bar specialist who has competed well internationally.  Were it not for Jake Dalton and Steven Legendre, Paul Ruggeri might even be higher on this list, as his abilities on floor and vault are truly world class, albeit a notch or two below the two Sooners.  What Ruggeri does also bring to the table, however, is a huge high bar score and a solid parallel bars routine, which places him in a very similar situation as Chris Brooks.  Like Brooks, Ruggeri wouldn’t be used on pommel horse, and thus his chances for the Olympic team may rely somewhat on some injuries or serious inconsistencies occurring from some of the gymnasts above him.


11.  CJ Maestas, the young rings sensation with a solid all-around.  Maestas, a 19-year-old from New Mexico and now the University of Illinois, raised a few eyebrows this past year by not only placing an impressive 8th all-around at the Visa Championships, but also by notching a huge 16.0 on rings on Day 2 and demonstrating potential to be a very good pommel horse swinger.  He wasn’t quite ready for the world team yet, but it will be interesting to see what a difference another year makes for this rapidly rising youngster.  More numbers around the 16-mark on rings and continued improvement on pommel horse toward the 15-range could suddenly make him a legitimate contender for London.


12.  Glen Ishino, a consistent and reliable all-around competitor who is strong on pommel horse.  Ishino, the brother of 2004 Olympic alternate Allyse Ishino, has quietly become one of the most consistent and reliable gymnasts in the United States over the last few years.  Much like his sister two Olympic cycles prior, Glen has a clean and well-balanced all-around but typically has had no real individual standout scores to legitimize world team spots.  He does have one of the best pommel horse swings in the country, though, so this is the event where he’ll need to really capitalize if he wants to finally transition from a solid all-around player to a legitimate Olympic contender.



Other possible Olympic contenders:


Sam Mikulak is yet another floor and vault stud who just happened to win the 2011 NCAA all-around title – as a freshman – over a very impressive field.  Unfortunately he suffered two broken ankles at a meet in 2011 and wasn’t able to contend for a spot on the world team.  Given that there are several floor and vault powerhouses in the mix with more experience than Mikulak (Jake Dalton, Steven Legendre, and Paul Ruggeri), it will be very difficult for him to sneak in and steal an Olympic spot.  Interestingly, he is being given a chance to prove himself as one of the selected USA representatives at the upcoming Olympic Test event in London – a tremendous opportunity for this youngster.


Chris Cameron was a 2010 world team member who impressed the selection committee that year with a stunning NCAA season and strong scores on pommel horse and rings – which made him a perfect fit to fill the USA’s deficit on these two events.  However, major mistakes on both of these specialties in the 2010 world team finals, as well as a less confident 2011 season, have clearly dropped him down on the list of Olympic contenders.  If he can regain his competitive confidence – as well as the trust of the selection committee – throughout the 2012 season, he does have the potential to climb back into the Olympic mix.


Tim McNeill was the surprise USA star of the 2009 world championships, where he placed an impressive 7th all-around and made the pommel horse finals, where he placed 5th.  Given his well-rounded all-around abilities, clean and consistent gymnastics, exceptional strengths on pommel horse and rings, newfound competitive confidence, and developing international experience and reputation, McNeill seemed at that time to be on a track headed straight to London 2012.  However, his competitive goals changed when he was offered the head coaching position at his alma mater, the University of Cal-Berkeley, and combined with some trouble with a back injury, McNeill dropped off the radar.  It was initially announced he’d be making a competitive return at the 2011 Visa Championships, but when he again dropped out of the meet, his status became unclear.  McNeill has strengths that would fit in with Team USA perfectly, but whether he intends to actually pursue London remains a mystery at this point.


Look for a similar preview of the Top 12 U.S. Women’s Olympic Contenders next!