After exceeding expectations in the men's gymnastics preliminaries, the United States fell below expectations when it counted, in the team final. A squad that had hoped for gold, if everything went right, finished out of the medals entirely.
Veteran Jonathan Horton, the weak link in Saturday's top-ranked team preliminary performance, was solid in the final. It was the youthful side of the roster that faltered. Sam Mikulak got things going in the wrong direction by putting his hands down on the final pass of his floor exercise. Danell Leyva then fell off of the pommels, and the usually steady John Orozco chimed in with a fall of his own.
With two events gone, the chances of gold were dashed, and the ones of any medal were fading. And then Orozco sat down his vault, and the goal changed from reaching the podium to staying out of last place.
But Horton, the team leader, rallied the demoralized group, and they hit well on the parallel bars and high bar, their best events. In the end, they came out fifth, 1.759 points shy of the bronze.
They were 6.045 points behind the Chinese team, however. China's performance in London was the opposite of the Americans': After a distant sixth-place finish in preliminaries made them look vulnerable, they methodically put away the competition in the final. Without being flashy, they executed cleanly, at a high level of difficulty. After a few rotations, their position was never really in doubt.
The Japanese seemed equally secure in their silver medal—until, in the final rotation, they suffered two major breaks, including an out-of-control dismount from their superstar, Kohei Uchimura. Uchimura's score dropped Japan out of the medals altogether. The surging British team, led by pommel-horse gold-medal favorite Louis Smith, was set to take silver. The Ukranians celebrated a team bronze.
And then the Japanese team challenged Uchimura's score. Judges and officials debated his routine for several minutes as the three teams paced nervously. In the end, they revised the score upward by 0.7 points, vaulting Japan back to silver after all. Great Britain was bumped to bronze, and the Ukraine fell out of the medals.
Though the Ukranians were understandably devastated, the British were still jubilant. It was the country's first team medal in men's gymnastics in a hundred years, won in front of the home crowd and Princes William and Harry. Last time the British men won a team medal in gymnastics, the athletes competed on events like rope climbing and the royalty in attendance actually mattered.
The tight outcome of the men's team competition demonstrated how much talent and depth there is in this field. Russia, the Ukraine, and Great Britain were in the hunt for the bronze up until the end. And while the Americans fell short, this is a young team. Horton, at 26, already has a team Olympic medal and can retire on that. Of the others, two are 19, one is 20, and another is 21. None of them has indicated any plans to retire after London.
It's not as simple as just training another four years, in an injury-plagued sport like gymnastics. And there is always a crop of younger athletes looking to topple the veterans. But for this crew, another run at an Olympic medal seems very possible.
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