With the huge number of gymnasts in the men’s field (43), the wide range of various strengths and weaknesses among the competitors, and the complex nature of putting together a five-man team that best captures the three best on each event for London, it’s easy to feel a little lost in the year’s men’s Visa Championships. There are some battles that are obvious to follow – like who will win the competition – but the real discussions among the Olympic selection committee members will center around a few “unspoken” battles that are taking place beneath it all.
Below I’ve highlighted six battles to follow in the men’s competition – which begins this evening in St. Louis – including the obvious all-around race as well as some of the more “silent” contests that will be key in this Olympic selection process.
Battle 1: The All-Around Race: Danell Leyva vs. John Orozco vs. Jonathan Horton.
Leyva is the defending national champion, Orozco was this year’s Winter Cup champion, and Horton is a two-time national champion (2009 and 2010) and the 2010 world all-around bronze medalist. All three are potential Olympic all-around medalists, but only two will be given that opportunity in London, and only one can enjoy the bragging rights of being the 2012 national champion. This battle isn’t so much about earning a spot on the Olympic team as it is about carrying the title of “America’s best” to London this summer.
My Pick: Danell Leyva
Battle 2: The Pommel Horse Champion: Alex Naddour vs. Glen Ishino vs. Craig Hernandez
John Orozco and Danell Leyva will likely take two of the available Olympic spots on pommel horse, but a third strong score on this event will be critical in London just as it was at the worlds in Tokyo last fall. Former University of Oklahoma standout Alex Naddour was the U.S. pommel horse savior at that competition and is an obvious choice to fulfill the same role on this year’s Olympic team. But Cal-Berkeley’s Glen Ishino has shown the capacity to score even higher on this critical event – beating Naddour at this year’s Winter Cup with a higher difficulty score and also dominating pommel horse in this year’s NCAA season. Many speculate that Naddour and Ishino are battling for a spot on this summer’s Olympic team, and thus both officially begin their Olympic campaigns this evening in St. Louis. Craig Hernandez just finished his freshman year at Penn State but placed an impressive third at this year’s NCAA Championships and also won the event at the recent men’s national qualifier. It would seem very unlikely the U.S. would send such an inexperienced gymnast to London this summer, but if he is able to handle pressure of the senior national championships as one of the youngest gymnasts in the field, he could easily finish near the top of the standings on this event.
My Pick: Glen Ishino
Battle 3: America’s Best Tumbler and Vaulter: Jake Dalton vs. Steve Legendre vs. Eddie Penev vs. Sam Mikulak vs. Paul Ruggeri vs. Chris Brooks vs. David Sender vs. Alex Buscaglia vs. Joshua Dixon
As you can see, the U.S. is overloaded with world class tumblers and vaulters like it has never been before – and it’s not just Jake Dalton and Steve Legendre that we’re talking about. Taking two floor and vault specialists to the 2011 worlds in Tokyo proved to be a very fruitful tactic, but with just five spots available for the Olympics, it’s likely the U.S. will take just one of these specialists to London, with perhaps another serving as an alternate. Jake Dalton and Steve Legendre are both proven on the world stage and will likely be the front runners for this role, while Stanford’s Eddie Penev – a transplanted Bulgarian gymnast who gained American citizenship this year – actually won both floor and vault at this year’s NCAA championships, outscoring Dalton in the process. Penev, a 2010 world floor finalist, could turn some heads at this competition and give the selection committee something serious to think about. There are two other Stanford gymnasts with some eye-catching tumbling and vaulting as well. Alex Buscaglia, who has been known as a strong high bar worker and all-arounder, won both floor and vault at the recent men’s qualifier with high difficulty scores. And Joshua Dixon is a former Stanford gymnast who now trains at the Olympic Training Center and is particularly strong on these two events, where he shows an elegant, artistic style and some world class skills. Sam Mikulak, Paul Ruggeri, and Chris Brooks have all battled leg injuries over the past two years but are all spectacular tumblers and vaulters in their own unique ways. David Sender was a great tumbler and vaulter in the last quadrennium, and during his comeback thus far has shown us his trademark impeccable Yurchenko 2 ½ on vault and a somewhat sloppy floor routine that still needs some work. This incredibly deep field of sensational tumblers and vaulters will make this battle one of the most spectacular and unpredictable of the entire competition.
My Pick: Jake Dalton
Battle 4: The Best Rings Score Amongst the Tumblers and Vaulters: Jake Dalton vs. Steve Legendre vs. Sam Mikulak vs. Chris Brooks vs. David Sender
There are some special “Olympic brownie points” available for any floor and vault specialist who can also put up a strong rings score, as it might well be needed to round out this team. In fact, rings might become one of the most important factors in helping single out one Olympian from amongst such an overwhelming crew of powerful tumblers and vaulters. Jonathan Horton and John Orozco are expected to count as two of the U.S. rings scores in London, but the third is up for grabs. Jake Dalton and Chris Brooks have both improved quite a bit on this event and have been putting up scores close to the 15-range this year, and Steve Legendre and Sam Mikulak aren’t too bad either. David Sender is traditionally just as strong on rings as he is on floor and vault and actually put up the third best ring score at this year’s Winter Cup. The committee would love nothing more than to have a guy who could be used on floor, vault, and rings in London, as it would prevent the need to use up an additional spot with a separate rings specialist.
My Pick: David Sender
Battle 5: The Strongest Ringsman Of All: Brandon Wynn vs. CJ Maestas vs. Scott Rosenthal vs. Jonathan Horton
Speaking of rings, there are three gymnasts in particular who are all looking to show that a massive rings score alone can be valuable enough to warrant an Olympic spot. Former Ohio State standout Brandon Wynn has established himself as America’s strongest ringsman over the last two years and fulfilled the role of rings specialist at the 2010 worlds. The University of Illinois’ CJ Maestas has proven he’s at least one of America’s top three on this event over the past year, scoring as high as a 16 in national competition. Wynn and Maestas, who are both legitimate Olympic contenders, will need to prove they bring more points to the team on rings than either a pommel horse specialist or a floor and vault specialist brings on their respective specialties in order to be considered for London. And Scott Rosenthal is another collegiate athlete from Penn State who has also developed superhuman strength on this event and won this event over Maestas as this year’s NCAA Championships. As is the case with Craig Hernandez on pommel horse, Rosenthal would be an unlikely candidate for an Olympic berth given he has no international experience like Wynn and Maestas do, but he can challenge for the top spot on this event nonetheless. And Jonathan Horton is one of America’s proven strong rings workers who always finishes near the top on this event. We haven’t seen his best rings work since the 2011 world championships, so it will be very important for Team USA that Horton shows he is back to top form here.
My Pick: Brandon Wynn
Battle 6: The 4th Best All-Arounder: Jake Dalton vs. Steve Legendre vs. Chris Brooks vs. Sam Mikulak vs. CJ Maestas vs. Brandon Wynn
The U.S. men’s delegation has really emphasized the importance of the all-around over the past few years, and this focus has really encouraged some of America’s best specialists to strengthen some of their weaknesses and become very competitive and well-balanced all-arounders. Jake Dalton, Steve Legendre, and Sam Mikulak have all been NCAA all-around champions, and CJ Maestas finished 2nd in this year’s NCAA all-around. Chris Brooks was the 2010 Winter Cup all-around champion and this year’s Pacific Rim all-around champion and has looked healthier and better this year than we’ve ever seen him. Brandon Wynn placed 3rd all-around at the 2010 U.S. Championships but dropped to 9th last year, largely due to very low pommel horse scores. Although there won’t necessarily be an official Olympic spot for the gymnast who finishes just behind the three all-around favorites, doing so would go a long ways in the eyes of the selection committee members, who would love to have several versatile all-arounders on this relatively small five-man Olympic team. Knocking off one of the three favorites and sneaking onto the all-around medal podium here in St. Louis would earn even bigger points for one of these Olympic contenders.
My Pick: Chris Brooks
The men’s meet starts tonight at 6:30pm central time. I’ll be following along Quick Hits from various websites and will post my thoughts on the meet afterwards. Let the competition begin!